Emergency Preparedness: How Home Inspectors Can Help Their Clients

by Nick Gromicko and Kate Tarasenko
 
 
Whether you're facing rising floodwaters or a wildfire that’s too close for comfort, many homeowners confront seasonal threats to their safety that force them to flee their properties, at least temporarily.  In the last three years alone, damage created by severe weather and natural disasters in the U.S. has reached the tens of billions of dollars, as well as caused hundreds of deaths. 
 
In the fall of 2010, Boulder County, Colorado, experienced its worst wildfire in history with the Fourmile Canyon fire, which incinerated 135 homes in just three days after forcing 3,500 people to evacuate.  In the spring of 2011, a record 165 tornadoes were recorded in a 24-hour period in the South, killing more than 300 people across six states.  In April and May, the Mississippi River breached its banks in areas across six states that are home to many battles and graves of the Civil War, reaching levels not seen in 84 years, and causing both uncontrolled and controlled flooding in regions of the Gulf Coast that are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  And in September 2013, the city of Boulder and the Northern Front Range of Colorado experienced record rainfall in a three-day period that resulted in catastrophic flooding, leading to deaths and the destruction of homes and even entire towns, as well as long-term damage to road, bridge and building infrastructure costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
 
Here are some tips everyone can use to make a strategic retreat, as well as ways that InterNACHI inspectors can help their clients both prepare for an emergency and assess any property damage upon their return home.

 
Evacuating in the event of an emergency is often difficult under the best of circumstances.  Sometimes we may receive ample warning to prepare, but many dangers are unpredictable.  Given the emotional stress and panic that can compromise decision-making abilities in the moment, an important aspect to consider is whether the emergency is localized or widespread.  An emergency such as a ruptured gas pipe, a chemical spill from a nearby truck or train accident, or a home fire suggests that help is just beyond the immediate zone of danger and the evacuation will be temporary, from just a few hours to one or two nights.  All families should devise a Family Evacuation Plan that includes a location outside the home where family members can meet.  But a larger disaster, such as the aforementioned flood or wildfire, or an earthquake, hurricane or tornado tends to affect a wider area and may compromise or fully disable public utilities, including communications, electricity, water and sewer.  Roads within the danger zone may be blocked or difficult to travel, and emergency personnel may encounter problems reaching those who need assistance. 
Regardless of the type of disaster, there are many things you can do to mitigate potential property damage and make for a secure departure, should the time come, especially given some warning to evacuate safely.  And, upon returning home, we’d all like the shock to be minimized as much as possible.
 

To help homeowners get organized before an emergency, we’ve broken down these common concerns into three categories:

  • personal health and safety;
  • home security; and
  • re-entry.
 
PERSONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY
 
Homeowners should take certain measures to ensure their personal safety when they need to leave their homes for an unknown period of time.  Make sure that you watch or listen to TV or radio for local news and broadcasts by the Emergency Alert System to stay abreast of the latest weather or other conditions, as well as to find out what local emergency management recommends, including the location of public shelters. 
 
Here’s a list of things to pack that will help relieve the last-minute panic of leaving home in a hurry.  This list may vary for each person, but the items are generally based on these priorities:  short-term vs. long-term evacuation, and what you’ll need while you’re away, as well as what you shouldn’t leave behind while you’re gone:
  • an all-purpose, waterproof first aid and emergency kit that includes hand sanitizer, a flashlight, a radio with batteries, and matches;
  • glasses, hearing aids, and prescription medications for all family members;
  • supplies for pets, including carriers, leashes, plastic or collapsible/camping-type water bowls, food and medication;
  • a kit of personal toiletries for each family member that’s ready to grab and go;
  • a change of clothes, including undergarments, footwear and outerwear;
  • sleeping bags and Mylar™ camping blankets;
  • personal paperwork in waterproof pouches, including irreplaceable or hard-to-replace documents, such as:
    • drivers' licenses and other ID;
    • birth certificates;
    • Social Security cards;
    • passports;
    • insurance policies, and other banking, business and legal cards and documents;
  • contact information for relatives, friends and neighbors, as well as local shelters, including the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which may be directing disaster relief activities in your area;
  • keys;
  • cash and credit cards;
  • firearms;
  • personal electronics, including cell phones and chargers;
  • irreplaceable personal effects, such as albums of photos that haven’t been digitally preserved;
  • enough snacks, including special food items such infant formula, and non-perishables, along with a can opener (if needed), to last until reaching alternative housing and supplies;   
  • water.  If the emergency may be extended, FEMA recommends a three-day supply of one gallon per person per day, to be used for both drinking and sanitation;
  • plastic bags, wet wipes, hand sanitizer and other items for personal sanitation and hygiene; and
  • a basic toolkit that includes work gloves, pliers, an adjustable wrench, a hacksaw, and other tools to fix a flat tire, turn off and on household utility shut-off valves, pry open a damaged door, or cut through tree branches that may be blocking a road.

An expanded emergency supply list can include the following items:

  • a gallon of bleach to be used as a disinfectant and to purify drinking water, if necessary.  Adding 16 drops of plain household chlorine bleach to a gallon of water will make the water potable;
  • a gasoline-powered portable generator, along with extra gasoline;
  • a portable fire extinguisher;
  • portable lanterns and flashlights;
  • a camping toilet;
  • tents;
  • a portable cook stove and mess kits;
  • face masks for every family member;
  • plastic sheeting or tarps, duct tape and scissors to create a “shelter in place,” if a more secure shelter cannot be accessed in time.  These can also be used to create a barrier from flying debris if it is not safe to leave and you must take refuge in your home; and
  • other supplies that can aid in daily routines if temporary accommodations are too difficult to reach or overcrowded.  

These items can help a family be self-sufficient while temporary accommodations and plans for returning home are sorted out.  With the exception of medications and electronics that are used every day, most of the items can be stored in a central location, such as a coat closet or garage cupboard, or already loaded in your vehicle.

Other Considerations 

For residents with special needs, such as infants, the elderly, and those with mobility issues, an emergency evacuation plan is essential because the time needed to leave is greater, and the list of personal items is often specialized.  For example, a lightweight, collapsible wheelchair may be a more practical option for short-term use for someone who is wheelchair-bound.  A person who relies on oxygen may be able to invest in a portable, back-pack type supply.  Those who wear hearing aids should keep extra batteries in their toiletries kit. 
 
In all cases, emergency personnel and first responders should be notified as soon as possible regarding the location of at-risk and elderly residents whose mobility may be compromised so that they can receive the additional assistance they need to make a safe getaway.  
 

The B-List

If a forced evacuation is predicted to be long-term and residents are afforded extra time to pack more than just the essentials, some homeowners may opt to pack items that have special sentimental or luxury value, such as heirlooms, jewelry, artwork, and other prized possessions.

Like most lists, this “B-list” should be made well in advance, including how such items can be packed into your vehicle while leaving room for occupants and emergency essentials, or even stored off-site at a secure location.    

HOME SECURITY

The good news is that if you’re a homeowner whose home was inspected by an InterNACHI inspector, he or she probably already gave you your free copy of Now That You’ve Had a Home Inspection, the ultimate home maintenance manual, now in its fourth edition, and newly available in Spanish as a PDF download.  This indispensable guide outlines exactly the types of things that homeowners should be aware of on a seasonal and annual basis to keep their homes in good repair, and many of these tips can be adapted to emergency situations.  
 
On a regular basis, homeowners should make sure that their property's drainage is unobstructed, including gutters, downspouts and drainfields.  Tree limbs should be trimmed back so that they don't break off and damage the roof or become entangled in nearby power lines during a storm.  Shingles and chimneys should be in good repair, with no loose elements that can become dangerous projectiles in high winds.  Homeowners living in wildfire-prone areas should maintain an adequate defensible space around their properties.
 

In addition to learning about the maintenance of their homes, homeowners should also take inventory of potential hazards within the home that can compromise personal safety, such as light fixtures, windows and shelf units.  Things such as these can become unsteady or damaged and cause serious injury while a family takes shelter indoors during a severe storm or earthquake. 

If you’re not familiar with the locations of your shut-off valves and how to operate them, it’s critical for you to schedule an inspection with your InterNACHI inspector who can walk you through these essential steps so that, when the time comes, you can act confidently and quickly.

Shutting Off Utilities

If you have time, prior to shutting off the utilities to your home, turn off all your household appliances and unplug them.  If you do not turn off the electrical service at the panel, your plugged-in appliances will still draw current and create potential hazards in an already unstable situation.  

  • Electricity:  The method for disconnecting your electrical service depends on the age of your home and the type of system it has.  Most homes have circuit breakers, but some older homes have fuses.  Locate your main panel and open the door, called the dead front.  For a fuse panel, you should find a knife-switch handle or pullout fuse clearly marked “main.”  For a circuit breaker panel, there should be one switch marked “main,” with directions marked “on” and “off.”  If you have more than one panel, it’s a good idea to turn off the switches or remove the fuses at the sub-panels because current can sometimes bypass the main breaker or fuse.

  • Gas:  Each of your gas-fueled appliances, such as your water heater and stove, should have its own shut-off valve.  The service for your home is located outside at your gas meter.  It may be exposed, it may be in a box underground, or it may be in an above-ground cabinet.  Make sure that you have easy access to it (especially if it is a locking box), and make sure you know which service is yours if you live in multi-family housing.  The shut-off valve itself generally runs parallel to the pipe that extends from the ground to the meter.  Turning this valve 90 degrees in either direction so that the valve is crosswise to the pipe will shut off the gas supply. 
If you suspect a leak, do not ignite any fire source (candle, cigarette, etc.) or turn on or off any electrical switches nearby, including lights, as even a minor spark can cause an explosion.  Make sure that the service is safe to turn back on when you return home.
  • Water:  Each sink, commode and water-supplied appliance has its own shut-off valve.  If you have time and depending on the type of emergency, shutting off the water to these appliances may prevent accidental flooding of the home.  If you find it necessary to shut off the home’s water supply, make sure you know where the valve is located.  Typically, it’s in an area of the home or garage that’s nearest the exterior valve at the meter.  Similar to the gas shut-off valve, those with a blade-type valve are aligned with the pipe when turned on, and turning it a quarter-turn will shut the water off.

Lock Your Doors and Windows

Secure the home’s window and door locks to prevent unwanted entry by intruders during a time of crisis.  This includes all exterior doors and doors leading from an attached garage to the home, as well as yard gates and all outbuildings.  During a tornado, some homes may become overly pressurized unless some windows are left open a crack.  In hurricane-prone regions, windows may need to be boarded up.  Use your judgment and the recommendations of local experts based on the type of emergency.

Other Security Issues

Ranchers and farmers have their own particular concerns because of livestock, as well as additional buildings and equipment to secure.  Likewise, commercial property owners and managers of multi-housing units have their own unique priorities that should be addressed ahead of time with employees and tenants in an emergency evacuation plan.  Fire marshals generally require that the emergency escape route, of specified dimensions for easy visibility, be posted in a common location.  Such signage is typically located near fire pull alarms and fire extinguishers.  All residents and employees should concentrate on safe evacuation and leave security of the property to those charged with such responsibilities.

RE-ENTRY

Being let back onto one’s property after a disaster or emergency can be an emotional time, so it’s important to allow emergency personnel and first responders to do their jobs and to follow their instructions.  Generally, unless you can turn on all of your utilities again, your access may be limited, but it depends on your municipality and the scope of the damage.  You may be instructed to boil your water for a brief period of time while governmental agencies confirm that it’s potable and safe without treatment. 

Before you re-enter your property, check the exterior. 

Check the exterior.

  • Make sure that there are no downed power lines on or near your property.  If there are, do not attempt to move them yourself; immediately contact utility company personnel or law enforcement. 
  • Check for broken tree branches that may impede your access to your property, or which themselves may be in contact with power lines; again, enlist help in such situations to avoid a potentially fatal injury. 
  • Make sure the perimeter of your property is secure before allowing pets back onto the property.  Natural disasters can be disorienting for them, and they may try to escape. 
  • Check any damage to windows and exterior doors, as well as the roof, chimney and other penetrations, but do so safely.  You may defer this to your InterNACHI inspector. 
  • Check gutters, downspouts and exterior drainage for blockages, and clear them as soon as it's possible to do so safely.
  • It’s always best to document damage from the ground and contact your InterNACHI inspector who can make a more in-depth and detailed inspection.  Even after you contact your insurance carrier, an unbiased inspection by a trained home inspector may reveal issues that are not immediately apparent, such as hail damage, which requires some expertise to properly identify, especially if the insurance investigator must inspect damage incurred by multiple clients in the aftermath of a widespread emergency.

Check the interior. 

  • Before turning on the water and gas service to the home, check the individual appliances to make sure that they’re undamaged.  Document all damage, and contact utility personnel if you don’t feel safe turning the fuel or water back on yourself.  If there is no apparent damage or telltale smells or sounds (such as hissing) emanating from any appliances, it should be safe to turn on the gas and water at their shut-off valves.  Make the same damage assessment before turning the electricity back on, too.
  • Securely dispose of perishable food items left in the refrigerator during a power outage.  Ensure that stray animals foraging for food can’t access it.  Some food left in the freezer may be salvageable, but always err on the side of caution to avoid serious illness caused by bacteria.
  • Go back through your home to check for structural damage, including broken glass. 
  • In the aftermath of a storm or flood, check the basement, crawlspace and attic areas for moisture intrusion, as well as areas at window sills and exterior doors.  Unchecked moisture can lead to mold problems and structural issues down the road.  Have your InterNACHI inspector survey your home with an infrared camera, which can identify areas of moisture intrusion and energy loss that may not be visible to the naked eye.

Check in with neighbors and others.

  • At-risk and elderly neighbors should be accounted for. 
  • Notify pet owners or Animal Control if you see disoriented domestic pets searching for their owners or homes.  Also, avoid contact with wildlife that may have been forced from their natural habitat. Report their location to Animal Control.
Those of us untouched by disaster sometimes daydream about what we would grab if we had only moments to spare.  The fact is, there is no bad time to actually make that list and prepare those plans.  Talk with your entire family about what to do in an emergency.  By making practical preparations and involving all family members, chances are that when disaster strikes, you’ll feel less panicked and more in control to guide your family in a safe and orderly evacuation.  They'll know what to expect, too (as much as possible), and that will lessen their fear, which is especially important for keeping calm and acting quickly.  Schedule a meeting with your InterNACHI inspector to help you devise a checklist to prepare your house in the event of an emergency, and to assess its condition afterward to make sure it’s safe for you to re-occupy.  He or she can also help you get started on an action plan for repairs.  And don't forget to replenish your emergency supply kits so that you can be prepared the next time, too.
 
 
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Nick's BIG Survival List for Ultimate Self-Sufficiency
 
There was a time when citizens were encouraged to build bomb shelters in their backyards for nearly unimaginable worst-case scenarios, such as a foreign invasion or nuclear fallout.  While U.S. national security has been reinforced to unprecedented levels, not every contingency can be met by third parties. 
 
The list below represents the items a family will need to be truly self-sufficient if the grid goes down and public services and utilities are disabled for three months or longer.  The list is long and comprehensive, and all the items will take time to assemble, so consider getting started now.