In less than a year between 2020 and 2021, Lake Charles, Louisiana, faced two hurricanes, then a severe winter storm, followed by more flooding, all in the midst of a pandemic. A team of engineers from Notre Dame has a plan to educate the community on climate risks and recommend upgrades to their homes, but everyone, not just people in Lake Charles, can and should heed their advice.
“If this hasn’t woken you up and has you making different choices, we want to know why,” says Tracy Kijewski-Correa, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Notre Dame.
Many people have a false sense of security about how safe they are from extreme weather, Kijewski-Correa says. But many homes are not built to the standards set by the latest building codes, and the climate may be changing faster than policymakers can adapt. That’s why it may make sense to make upgrades on your own, before you’re required to.
Here is what Kijewski-Correa and other experts say homeowners can do to make their homes more climate-resilient.
How to upgrade your home for extreme weather
Even if people acknowledge the risk of climate change, they don’t always believe they’ll be the next victim, Kijewski-Correa says. They have faith that if their houses are up to code, they’re safe. But there’s big problems with that: One, many houses are older and built to out-of-date standards. Two, many communities haven’t adapted the latest building codes. Kijewski-Correa recommends that homeowners check Inspect to Protect, a website from the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, to see whether your home is built to the latest standards or vulnerable to threats like flooding and severe storms. (I checked my apartment, and it’s considered outdated. Yikes!)
Kijewski-Correa also recommends homeowners take a look at the Fortified Home construction guidelines set by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, a non-profit funded by the property insurance industry. The guidelines are a voluntary set of construction standards designed to protect against severe weather by keeping water and other debris out and stopping the structure from collapsing.
The guidelines include measures to protect your home from high winds. These include ensuring the connections between your roof and walls and walls to the foundation are secure, which can keep your house from blowing apart in a storm, installing protection for windows and doors against high pressure and impact from windblown debris, and installing a roof certified for high winds with the latest materials and installation methods. If you live on the coast, it’s also essential to elevate your home above the expected flood elevation.
“You’re always looking to strengthen the roof, the way it’s connected, and get those windows and other openings fortified, and that’s going to make a big difference,” Kijewski-Correa says.
These upgrades have the added benefit of making your home more energy-efficient, she adds.
“They pay off every day,” she says. “Not just during a hurricane.”
How to upgrade your insurance for extreme weather
Even if you don’t live in a flood zone, it’s a good idea to buy flood insurance. Standard homeowners insurance won’t cover flood damage. And as the climate changes, flooding can happen anywhere it rains, says Ian Giammanco, senior director for standards and data analytics and lead research meteorologist for IBHS.
“You may think ‘I don’t need this,’ but as time goes on that safety net is going to be more important,” Giammanco says.
Flood insurance prices are rising in many areas, but are still cheap, especially outside of FEMA-designated flood zones, where the danger of flooding will grow as the climate changes, Giammanco says. As technology improves, he expects private flood insurance will provide competition for the National Flood Insurance Program, currently the only option in many flood-prone areas.
Many people allow their homes to become underinsured. Homeowners increase the value of their properties but don’t always increase their coverage to match. You should talk regularly with your insurance company to make sure your policy is up to date, Giammanco says. You should also shop around to ensure you’re paying the best price.
On the other side, insurance companies need to find ways to reward homeowners who make their homes more climate-resilient. That may be one way to avoid having to raise premiums to unaffordable levels as the risk of extreme weather rises. This is already happening in some states, where many homeowners are forced to buy state-issued home insurance policies because private companies have either raised their prices or stopped offering coverage. As more people rely on these policies, state budgets could be under threat in the event of a major hurricane, while politicians are under pressure to keep rates affordable.
“There’s going to have to be a huge reform of our insurance industry to understand how to share risk better,” Kijewski-Correa says.
What else needs to change to respond to extreme weather?
Hurricanes aren’t the only extreme weather threat to adjust to. For example, many people in the Pacific Northwest don’t have central air, and were caught off guard by a record-breaking heat wave this year. Many homes in the West are landscaped in ways that provide fuel for increasingly frequent and intense wildfires, Giammanco says.
“As the climate has shifted over the past 50, 60-plus years, we still have that old mindset and haven’t acknowledged the change,” he says.
Another adjustment many people have to make is in where they live. Real estate prices in some coastal areas are slowly adjusting to growing climate risk, but society has to decide whether continued development in increasingly dangerous areas is worthwhile, Giammanco says.
Right now we’re in a race to see whether the insurance industry, real estate markets, policymakers, and technology can change faster than the climate.
“It’s a long one,” Giammanco says of the shift. “And it’s going to continue well after you and I are gone.” But, he added, “We’ve got to start trying to catch up.”
The change will also have to be psychological. Preparing for climate change will require a mindset shift from reactive to proactive, Kijewski-Correa says.
“For some reason in society we’ve become very willing to accept cleanup and recovery as a mode of business, rather than asking what happens if we invest before the storm,” she says.
A new roof is not the sexiest way to use your renovation budget. But it could be the most valuable.
“It is not a granite countertop that will save your life,” Kijewski-Correa says. “We need to get into a world where we promote and actively reward those kinds of proactive decisions.”
Image: tovfla / Getty