How to protect your home—and your wallet—against natural disasters
By Jenny Schuetz
The tornados that recently tore through Sharkey County, Mississippi, left a trail of horrific damage: uprooting trees, ripping roofs off homes, reducing some buildings to matchsticks. More than 20 people were killed—an unusually high toll for a single event. Natural disasters cause substantial property and economic damage to the U.S. every year, but because of better building quality, they have far fewer fatalities than similar events in developing countries. According to a 2021 Federal Reserve survey, 16% of Americans experienced some disruption in the previous year from natural disasters, with property damage the most commonly reported occurrence.
Many Americans wrestle with how to prepare for natural disasters and climate-related events. When I moved to downtown Los Angeles in 2009, my parents worried that I would be hurt in an earthquake. Although my apartment building—constructed in 1911 as offices and later converted to condos—had stood intact for nearly 100 years, my parents envisioned it collapsing like an accordion. They sent care packages with essentials for a disaster survival kit: a solar powered radio, flashlight, first aid kit, plus notes reminding me to keep plenty of bottled water on hand.
Predicting the exact time, location, and severity of tornados, earthquakes, and other disasters is impossible even with the best scientific data and methods. But even in the face of uncertainty, there are several strategies that can reduce the risks to our homes, neighborhoods, and financial well-being—with the right information, resources, and advanced planning. At the same time, we should recognize the limits of individual actions and invest in broader community plans.
Which risks should you prepare for?
Identifying relevant natural disaster risks isn’t as easy as it sounds. Many of us could accurately predict that California has high risk of earthquakes, while Florida is more likely to be hit by hurricanes. But most U.S. regions face multiple types of risks. Southern California has a 75% likelihood of a very large earthquake in the next 30 years. But statistically, earthquakes aren’t the most likely event: From 1950 to 2017, about 7% of the state’s emergency declarations were related to earthquakes, compared to 40% for floods and 30% for fires.
Often, the less obvious risks cause the most damage to our homes and infrastructure, precisely because we haven’t prepared for them. The Pacific Northwest traditionally has mild summers, and most homes there don’t have air conditioning—so an unexpected heat wave creates greater public health risks, especially for older adults and other vulnerable groups. Homes in southern states such as Texas and Mississippi are generally built to withstand hot weather, but cold snaps may cause pipes to freeze and break, flooding homes.
Even at small geographic scales, both natural geography and built environment features affect vulnerability to natural disasters. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s interactive climate change mapping tool, some city blocks in downtown Los Angeles have a flooding risk below the 50th percentile, while other blocks less than a mile away—adjacent to the Los Angeles River—are above the 90th percentile.
Geographic tools that can map different types of climate risk at the neighborhood (or even property) level are just now becoming more available to the general public. But it’s not yet clear how—or even whether—people will incorporate this information into their housing decisions. Variation in climate risks probably won’t be the primary factor in location choice for most Americans; people decide which city to live in based on job opportunities, proximity to family and friends, or more benevolent climate aspects like sunshine and warm temperatures.
At a smaller scale, though, climate mapping tools could be helpful in nudging people toward less risky neighborhoods within their preferred city. A study by the real estate firm Redfin suggests that showing prospective homebuyers property-level climate risk scores can encourage them to seek out lower-risk homes. Perhaps, over time, local climate risk will become another neighborhood feature that people research when deciding where to move or buy a home, similar to mapping subway stations or checking out the local restaurant scene.
Strengthening your home against earthquakes, wind, water, and fire
Many high-rise buildings in downtown Los Angeles’ historic core date back to the 1910s and 1920s, when the neighborhood was home to banks and other financial services. The geographic center of the city moved west after World War II, leaving dozens of mostly vacant buildings. In the 1990s, as demand for housing downtown began to grow, the city passed an Adaptive Reuse Ordinance that allowed older commercial buildings to be converted into homes.
By then, architects and engineers had developed more effective and sophisticated construction techniques to protect tall buildings from seismic activity—an important consideration in both LA and the Bay Area. Converting a vacant office building into condos required the developer to retrofit the building to comply with modern building codes. Seismic upgrades are expensive, from $40,000 for smaller buildings to well over $1 million for large ones. But they are highly effective at protecting structures—and the people inside—in the event of an earthquake.
Seismic retrofits are just one example of how building technologies, materials, and construction techniques can help guard against natural disasters and climate events. As technology has improved, many states have adopted building codes requiring new homes to include new safety features, from fire-resistant exterior building materials in western states to wind-fortified roofs and windows in Florida. But building code changes don’t typically apply retroactively, and many older homes are simply not built to withstand today’s climate stresses without substantial upgrades and ongoing maintenance. Today, the typical American home is over 40 years old—the oldest our housing stock has ever been. Mobile homes (which accounted for roughly 30% of homes in Sharkey County, MS) are some of the most affordable homes in rural areas, but are especially vulnerable to hurricanes and tornados.
Figuring out what kinds of structural upgrades could make your house safer requires both expert guidance on the technical options and a bit of financial math. For example, pruning vegetation near your house can reduce the risk of damage from wildfires for a relatively modest cost; on the other hand, replacing wood exterior materials with fire-proof brick could cost upward of $60,000. Homeowners with good credit and high-value homes may be able to finance these upgrades with a home equity loan, but that’s neither feasible nor prudent for many people. And renters are typically not allowed to alter the structural features of their homes, although they can request that their landlord make safety improvements.
Read the fine print on your homeowners’ or renters’ insurance
Mortgage lenders require homebuyers to purchase property insurance to protect the value of the collateral, but standard policies have limits in what they will cover. Importantly, damage from earthquakes and floods are not covered. Insurance companies do sell specialized policies for natural disasters, but these policies are quite expensive. (Only about 10% of California homeowners have earthquake insurance.) Homeowners in high-flood-risk areas who have federally backed mortgages are required to buy flood insurance through the federal National Flood Insurance Program, but the increasing frequency and size of insurance payouts due to a changing climate is creating intense financial pressure on both private and public insurance programs.
Renters can—and should—also buy property insurance, which covers the value of their personal belongings. For people who want to live in places where climate is both high-risk and part of the draw (think beachfront property in South Florida), renting offers some advantages over buying. Renters are only committed to stay for the duration of the lease (usually one year), and moreover, diversified financial assets such as mutual funds are less exposed to climate risk than putting all one’s life savings into the down payment on a single home that could be under water (literally and figuratively) in 10 years.
Developing risk reduction strategies is easier than implementing them
Outlining an action plan for households to reduce their climate and natural disaster risk is only the first step; finding effective ways to encourage and support people in executing these plans raises further challenges. Florida saw the fastest population growth of any U.S. state in 2022, not because in-movers are unaware of hurricanes, but because people love beaches and sunshine. Poor people live in risky locations, such as flood-prone neighborhoods in Houston, because housing there is cheap and they have few other options.
There are limits to how much we can achieve through individual efforts. All of us will be safer if we live in neighborhoods where surrounding buildings and infrastructure assets have been retrofitted to withstand natural disasters. Federal disaster recovery programs are poorly designed to provide aid to vulnerable communities. We also need to address the ways that our current systems of housing, land use, and transportation create environmental harms. Accomplishing these larger goals will require building broader political coalitions, not just preaching to the choir.
I never needed to use the disaster kit my parents provided. The largest earthquake that occurred during my five years in LA happened around 5 a.m., and I slept right through it thanks to the building’s highly effective seismic retrofits. Or maybe it was just good luck.