If it seems like thunderstorms occur more frequently and intensely than they used to, that may be due to the understandable hype concerning SuperStorm Sandy and other recent destructive storms, like the tornadoes in Moore, Okla. "Despite the heightened level of thunderstorm activity since mid-May in the United States, it has actually been a rather quiet year in terms of overall events," says Steve Bowen, a senior scientist and meteorologist for Impact Forecasting, the catastrophe modeling arm of reinsurance intermediary Aon Benfield.
Thunderstorms do seem to be evolving, however, if not actually coming at us faster and more furiously, according to Stu Ostro, a senior meteorologist at The Weather Channel. Ostro says he isn't aware of an increase in the number of thunderstorms throughout the year, but "there is some evidence, which merits further study, of a change in the nature of tornado and severe thunderstorm outbreaks during the late autumn and winter, with many of them in the past decade or so seeming to have occurred relatively far north compared to where they typically have been in the past."
We may not be in the midst of a thunderstorm-tornado-hurricane apocalypse, but you don't want to be the homeowner unlucky enough to have a maple tree crash into your dining room or wade into a flooded basement because your sump pump went out after a major storm. So if you think your house could be better prepared to withstand the onslaught of a summer storm, here are some things to consider - before and after the rain.
Check your insurance. Do this long before a storm. What should you look for? Josh Noel, owner of Quality Roofing in Colorado Springs, Colo., says homeowners should check to see if they have an ACV or RCV policy. "The first one is actual cash value, which means your insurance company only pays for what your property was worth before the storm, which is not a good policy," Noel says. "RCV is replacement cost value, which means your insurance pays current market value of the property loss."
Even if a roofer like Noel has incentive for potential customers to have the best insurance out there, he still has a good point. If you bought your house in 1986, you don't want to be paying for a roof in 1986 dollars.
And, of course, you never think you'll need insurance until one day you do. John Scroggin's experience illustrates why it's important to be insured. On June 13, when storms rolled into Roswell, Ga., the 61-year-old lawyer was on his way home from a meeting with a client and decided to stop at his office, which employs five people and is in a historic house that was built in 1883.
"An oak tree, 300 years or older, decided to take up residence in my office's conference room," Scroggin says.
After quickly surveying the damage, Scroggin drove to his residence, where he fortunately found his family in good shape, but the tops of about 20 trees had rained onto his house and two-car garage. Fortunately, he was well-insured and had a disaster crew at his office 90 minutes after the tree fell, working until 4 a.m., cleaning everything and securing the law firm.
For obvious reasons, if you know exactly where your policy is, you may save some time in the event that your house is damaged.
Check your trees. Scroggin says the oak tree showed no visible signs of damage. But the clues are sometimes there, says Scott Spencer, a worldwide appraisal and loss prevention manager at Chubb Personal Insurance.
"Do your trees have good, solid leaf cover everywhere?" Spencer asks, when discussing the signs of a future fallen tree. "If you see at the top that the branches are bare, that could be an indication of a health problem. Is the land uneven around your trees, where you have a hump or pivot on one side of the tree? You might have a root problem that could eventually cause the tree to fall over."
Other clues include a lot of dead wood on the trees and large hollows, Spencer says.
If you think you have a tree that is at risk, he suggests hiring an arborist. Many tree removal services have them, but you should make sure you're talking to an arborist versus just a guy with a chainsaw, Spencer warns.
And how much will this run you? It can easily cost several hundred dollars. Most companies charge based on the height of the tree, with a set price per foot. The taller the tree, the more damage to your wallet.
"Many arborists will come out and give you a consultation for free or a low cost," Spencer says, adding that homeowners can sometimes get a discount if they hire an arborist through a service that partners with the insurance company.
Clean your gutters. So easy to forget about, those boring metal tubes that came with the house - that is, until you start having water issues. Even then you may not think about your gutters, if you aren't aware of the problems that can come from not cleaning them out.
"Though gutters are attached to your roof, their primary function is to protect siding, lawn and foundation. One of the biggest risks of not cleaning out gutters is basement damage," says Amy Matthews, a home improvement expert for Home Advisor, an online portal that matches homeowners with licensed home contractors for free (homeadvisor.com).
She adds: "Dirty gutters can also ruin your roof or attic. Particularly, downspouts that have formed dams can cause water to back up into your sub-roofing just as easily as down the side of your home."
The average cost of cleaning out gutters, if you hire a professional, according to Home Advisor: $181.
Inspect your basement. Spencer says it's critical to have a battery backup sump pump system, especially if you have a finished basement or one filled with boxes of heirlooms or important papers. All you need is to have a power outage for several hours during or after a major rainstorm to see why.
After the storm. As soon as feasible, call your insurance company to report the damage, and take photos for your insurance adjustor, Matthews says.
Depending on what havoc is going in your house, your yard, or your neighbor's house and yard, you might be surprised about how things work out. Generally, if your tree falls into a neighbor's yard and crushes his SUV, your neighbor's policy will be on the hook for the damages. That said, everyone should call their respective insurance policies and let the insurance companies hash it out, Spencer says.
If you're able to make any temporary repairs to your damaged home - without risking injury - most insurers will tell you that's perfectly fine, even if an adjustor hasn't come out yet. In other words, if you have a hole in the side of your house, and you want to board it up to keep raccoons, mice or other wildlife from moving in, go right ahead - but only if you can do so safely.
And safety, of course, is always paramount before and after any storm. Your house may be the most expensive item you own, but it's not the most important. If you want to patch a hole in your roof on your own but don't know if the roof is stable, keep in mind that should a misstep occur, you or your family might end up having to consult your health insurance policy, or worse, your life insurance policy - and nobody wants that.