Environmental hazards come in many forms, from local mishaps such as a tree falling on your roof or a flooded basement during heavy rain, to large scale natural disasters such as wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes.

And while regional weather patterns can help identify environmental risks in different parts of the country, homeowners can and should take steps to minimize the damage from a range of environmental threats. Preparing for the unexpected is a practical approach to readiness, and today’s changing climate patterns increase the likelihood of unexpected weather events.

Protecting home and family are at the forefront of any emergency preparedness actions taken by the homeowner. Storing clean drinking water and making ‘grab ‘n go’ preparedness kits should be standard practice in homes everywhere. But protecting the environment is also important, and easily overlooked when assessing risks and making plans to reduce them. In the aftermath of the Katrina hurricane, New Orleans was flooded by a toxic gumbo of water spiked with tons of toxic chemicals and contaminants ranging from industrial waste, household chemicals, oil, paints and toxic materials from flooded basements and garages. Experts say the contamination will continue to poison the Gulf of Mexico region for more than a decade. A senior policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency commented “This is the worst case…There is not enough money in the gross national product of the United States to dispose of the amount of hazardous material in the area.”

Forethought and planning from homeowners can minimize damage to home and property while also helping to reduce the chance of toxic materials escaping into the environment. Here are a few tips to consider in preparing your home for environmental emergencies.

Reinforce shutters and windows

Hurricanes and windstorms are occurring with more frequency and, due to rising sea temperatures, have been extending beyond their usual range. In many parts of the country building codes have not yet caught up with changes in climate patterns. The first line of defense homeowners should take against high winds is to secure windows and doors.
“In a coastal area, the single most important thing we recommend is the protection of the openings of the house with either storm shutters or impact-resistant glass,” said Barry Davis, a regional manager for risk services at Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company in Orlando, Fla. And he pointed out that homeowners might have reinforced doors and shutters, but if the latches or hooks had been corroded by salt air, they would not hold.

Your insurance company should have advice for appraising the security of your home windows and doors against windstorms, and local resources for upgrading them if necessary.

Secure garage doors

The garage doors are often overlooked when assessing home security against wind. While the rest of the house is built with structural integrity in mind, garage doors have little reinforcement. During a windstorm their large surface area acts as a sail, catching the wind and bowing inwards. If the garage door blows in, the structure of the house can be compromised. Todd Triano, a loss prevention professional, said 80 percent of catastrophic damage to houses during hurricanes was caused by garage doors being blown in.

When preparing for a ‘wind event’, move heavy objects against the inside of the garage doors for added strength. You can even back the car against the garage door to help keep it from blowing in.

Identify and secure hazardous trees

Take a look at the trees around your home with an eye towards their structural health. Besides the obvious concern of a tree falling on your home or coming in contact with an electrical line, there may be measures you can take to help the tree itself survive a windstorm.

Certain indicators will give clues that a tree is prone to failure. For instance, if a tree has large branches attached with tight, V-shaped forks, you should consider having those branches removed or lightened. If part or all of a tree is not leafed out, it may be unhealthy or dead. If you have excavated around a tree, the root system could be weakened. Heaving soil at the tree base is an indicator of a potentially unsound root system. Other warning signs of structural instability include cracks in the trunk or major limbs, hollow and decayed areas, or the presence of extensive dead wood. Mushrooms growing from the base of the tree or under its canopy may be a sign of root decay. Damaged or diseased limbs should be removed to reduce the hazard of falling on homes or power lines, and this also helps the tree by minimizing area exposed to wind.

Some tree species, such as catalpa, boxelder, Chinese elm, cottonwood, poplars, silver maples, and willows, have brittle wood which is easily broken in storms. These rapid-growing trees are prone to damage. Homeowners should be aware of these characteristics and avoid planting such species close to buildings, utilities, pedestrian areas, etc. where damage could occur.

If storm-damage prone trees are already growing in these locations, some preventive practices, such as pruning and bracing or cabling, may help reduce the potential of storm damage.

Know how to shut off the electricity, gas and water to your home

Everyone in the family should know the layout of utilities to your home. Turning off the gas before leaving the house in an emergency will reduce potential hazards to emergency personnel and minimize the risk of fire. Shutting off the main water valve may save your home from flooding and reduce the risk of toxic materials being released during minor flooding. Try turning off the water valve yourself – is it easy to do? Would a person need pliers to turn the valve? If so, leave a pair on standby.

Store household, garage and garden chemicals in totes with locking lids

Storing toxic materials in plastic totes will help you be more organized while also helping to keep these materials secure during an environmental emergency. Totes come in all shapes and sizes, and many have lockable lids. A small tote can fit under your kitchen sink for storing cleansers, and larger totes can be placed in the garage for other household and automotive chemicals. Storing these items in totes will also help family members and emergency personnel to identify and further secure these materials. Do the same for lawn chemicals and pesticides in your garden shed and workshop. Be sure to mark the contents on the outside of the tote with a permanent marker.

Store paints and chemically-based products on elevated shelves

Flooding is one of the most common environmental threats, since it can be caused by many factors and can affect homes in all regions of the country. Look in your basement and garage to see if paint cans, oil, cleaning chemicals, pesticides, batteries and similar materials are stored high enough to stay dry during minor flooding. These materials should ideally be stored on raised shelves with either secure doors or shelf guards to keep them from falling off during a windstorm or earthquake.

And don’t forget your garden shed

Garden and lawn care supplies, unfortunately, are often hazardous to the environment. Lawn care chemicals, pesticides and herbicides, gas and oil for the mower, and similar items should be stored in totes where possible, and set on secure raised shelves. Shed doors and windows deserve the same scrutiny as those on your home; be sure latches are in good shape and all containers containing fluids are well sealed.

The environment around our homes, most people would agree, is important and well worth protecting. Keeping this in mind as you make preparedness plans will add a level of security which will benefit your family and the greater community.

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