Recent disasters can serve as a preparedness reminder for Alaska homeowners

As we watched Hurricane Harvey ravage Texas late last month, we wondered whether Alaskans were prepared for a full-scale disaster. Then, last week a massive magnitude 8.1 earthquake shook Mexico City and a few days later Hurricane Irma plowed through Florida. Unlike hurricanes Harvey and Irma, earthquakes come without warning and fires can spread faster than you can run. While you can't prepare for everything, you can help shift the odds in your favor with a few steps.

First, check your insurance. It might not cover as much as you think. Many of the Houston residents didn't think they would need flood or surge coverage until they experienced some of the aftereffects of Hurricane Harvey.

To make sense of your insurance policy, think of it as a restaurant menu. The standard policy is the entree that protects the structure and some of your belongings against specific disasters. There may also be partial coverage of living expenses (if the property is uninhabitable) and limited liability. On the a la carte side are extra protection "riders" for things such as:

  • natural disasters, including floods, storm surge, sewer/drain backups;
  • earthquakes;
  • personal property (excessive and luxury items);
  • business (loss of income and property);
  • rebuilding or replacement costs, as well as ordinance and law coverage to rebuild to code;
  • loss of use (where can you stay and for how long);
  • higher liability limits and umbrella policies;
  • identity theft protection.

To keep your insurance costs under control, try some of the following strategies.

Look for possible discounts to reduce your premium by combining auto, home and/or business policies at one company. Having few or no insurance claims will also give you brownie points with insurance companies.

Use insurance for only catastrophic events, not for deferred-maintenance repairs. Maintenance repairs keep small problems from becoming bigger, expensive ones, but can also help in cases of natural disasters. Maintenance includes such things as clearing trees around the home to provide a larger fire barrier, repairing a roof to prevent leaks, and checking decks, stairs and railings for wood rot. When performed on a regular basis, maintenance repairs protect your investment.

Protect your credit score. Insurance companies rate their clients using credit history and number of claims. The companies also group clients into two groups:

  • preferred market, or clients with few claims (especially not water), and
  • high-risk clients whose policies can cost more than twice the amount of preferred clients.

Re-evaluate policies every few years, especially if you have refinanced, remodeled or upgraded recently. Make certain your insurance company has as much information as possible to maintain adequate coverage.

Next, prepare for a disaster. Anchorage experienced the Good Friday Earthquake more than 53 years ago and in 2016 had a close call with the McHugh Creek fire, but there is no crystal ball to forecast if the next event will be a close call or a true disaster. To compound the problem, our geographical location and temperature swings mean that help may not arrive quickly. To increase the odds of surviving, here are a couple of steps you can take to be self-reliant.

Step one: Take inventory.

Camping equipment may be easy to reach, but is it enough? Disaster preparedness experts recommend having at least three days' worth of food, water and other necessary resources on hand for your family to be self-sufficient. But what if help takes longer to arrive? If the thought of putting this all together seems overwhelming, search the State of Alaska website for "Personal and Family Preparedness" and peruse the links for how and what you need to survive a crisis. The site even has a comic book style "Zombie Preparedness" novella to interest the younger generations.

We recently familiarized ourselves with what was in our disaster supplies, which we keep in three waterproof bins and two backpacks. Plus, we rechecked the lists of what to grab in the main house. Anything outdated was replaced. A few documents from the websites, printed two-sided, were placed in bins so what to do next could be easily referenced.

Step two: Put your plan in writing.

Communication is a big component of surviving a disaster. With adrenaline high, it is easy to forget what to do next and just go with the flow. Take time to prepare a written plan for your family of what to do and where to go in a disaster, because everyone may not be in the same place when an event occurs.

However, don't limit preparations to just family. After all, when a disaster hits, communities tend to gather to share supplies and resources. Prepare ahead of time by coordinating with neighbors and being aware of who may have special skills (i.e. medical or handyman) or special needs (mobility or age). Assistance is a two-way street in an emergency. Not only do you need to know on whom you can call for assistance, but who might need your help.

Finally, use Hurricane Harvey as a reminder and motivator to re-evaluate your insurance needs and emergency preparedness. You never know what will happen when, or in what type of unplanned situation you may find yourself. During an emergency, we need to take responsibility for our family and neighbors, because it may take time for help to arrive.

Barbara Ramsey

Barbara Ramsey is a local associate broker specializing in residential real estate. She can be reached at