(BPT) - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced a very significant El Niño event will likely continue through winter 2016. While this might provide some relief from the 4-year drought currently affecting much of the West, it may also mean severe rains, winds, flooding and mudflows.
El Niño is characterized by abnormally warm ocean temperatures around the equator in the Pacific Ocean. This seemingly small change dramatically influences weather patterns around the world.
Typically, El Niño weather trends translate to an increase in rainfall for the southern United States and drier, warmer weather for the northern states. It also often leads to a weaker hurricane season for Gulf and East Coast states, but for West Coast residents the increased rainfall can increase the potential for water damage and flooding.
“Water damage is a huge concern, one that can impact the structural integrity of houses and wreak havoc on personal property. It’s also one of the most common claims filed by homeowners,” says Stephanie Behnke, claims innovation director at Mercury Insurance.
The last strong El Niño occurred in the winter of 1997-1998 and led to a series of storms that resulted in severe flooding in California, causing an estimated $550 million in damage, according to NOAA. Rainfall during this period nearly doubled the annual average.
Mercury reports homeowner claims during the winter of 1997-1998 increased by 39 percent and repair costs doubled.
“Homeowners should regularly review their policies to ensure that their needs are met and to familiarize themselves with what types of damages will be covered,” Behnke says. “Many Californians are probably focused on the current drought and haven’t considered that El Niño weather could bring heavy rainfall during the next two winters."
“Some things are just out of our control — you can’t control the weather, but it’s in your power to make sure that your home is safe for your family and pets. The summer months are the time to act.”
California’s recent drought and fires could lead to dangerous consequences when the rains begin to fall, because many hillsides have been stripped of vegetation that hold them in place. With these anchors gone, it’s very possible the heavy rains could weaken the hillsides and create severe mudslides. Flash flooding is also a very real possibility, because the hard, dried out soil doesn’t absorb as much water and this can lead to sudden, fast-moving water — a combination with the capacity to do a lot of damage.
Behnke recommends that homeowners take precautionary measures to help counteract the potential for water and wind damage. “Knowing there is a high probability for persistent rainfall, homeowners should take preventative measures to protect themselves against damages that can occur during an El Niño season,” Behnke says.
Homeowners insurance does not generally cover flood and mudslide damage, so Behnke suggests homeowners do some research to find out if your house is located in a flood plain. If so, you may want to look into purchasing national flood insurance if you feel your home is in a high risk area.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a mudslide is defined as earth and rock that travels downhill whereas a mudflow is a liquid stream of mud. Flood insurance covers both flood and mudflow damage, but only covers mudslide damage if defined exactly as the Standard Flood Insurance Policy defines Mudflow. Visit www.floodsmart.gov for more information.
Do your research on flood zones and potential mudslide areas before making property purchases. Remember to talk to your insurance agent about your protection options, as mudslides aren’t covered by standard insurance policies.
Here are a few things you can do to help minimize water and wind damage to your home and property:
* Hire an inspector to evaluate your home. Homeowners insurance will not cover damages that are a result of pre-existing conditions and negligence, so cover your bases and address these issues before they lead to bigger problems.
* Check for cracks or chips in windows and inspect their seals, too. Door seals should also be inspected. Strong winds can easily shatter glass, inviting debris and water into your home. Weak seals and small leaks can create bigger issues if the water gets into the walls.
* Evaluate your roof. The roof of your home is an important barrier that protects your property from wind and rain. Loose shingling and weak spots can lead to widespread roof damage, roof collapse or complete exposure of the interior of your home to Mother Nature. Address any leaks immediately.
* Have the foundation inspected for cracks and leaks.
* Remove trees and branches that are dead or dying from your yard to minimize the chances of damage to your home from fallen trees or snapped limbs. Remove branches and limbs in close proximity to your home. It may be smart to trim or relocate trees that are too close to your home.
* Keep an up-to-date inventory of your personal property in the event you need to make a claim.
* Speak with your insurance agent to review and understand the ins and outs of your homeowners insurance policy to ensure there are no surprises down the road.
* Determine whether or not your home is located in a flood plain, and consider purchasing federal flood insurance if it is.
* Avoid driving on roads that pass through flood plains and parking in areas where flooding is a hazard when possible.
* Contact your insurance carrier or agent immediately and file a homeowners claim.
* If your property has sustained damage from a flood or mudflow and you have flood insurance, file a separate claim under your federal flood insurance.
* Remember to evaluate and document all damages in the event that rain or wind causes destruction on your property to help the claim process move forward smoothly.
* If your home is unsafe, take your family and pets out of the house. Your homeowners insurance may provide for alternative housing costs if you need to evacuate your home.
Save yourself the headache and hassle and make necessary repairs before inclement weather hits. These simple steps can reduce repair costs and may pay off big time in the long run.
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