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More Severe Tornadoes and Hurricanes Ahead: Be Prepared

The Sunday evening tornado that left more than 100 dead in Joplin, Missouri, is the latest tragedy that has already made the spring of 2011 the deadliest tornado season since 1953, with more than 480 deaths. And the forecast is for more high intensity storms today. The tornado devastation is obviously heartache enough. But of course it comes in the wake of the Japan earthquake, and amid continuing flooding along the Mississippi River.

Moreover, next Wednesday is the official start to the hurricane season in the U.S. and Caribbean. The official forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is that 2011 hurricane activity along the Atlantic coast will be more severe than normal with the potential for three to six hurricanes rated at Category level 3, 4, or 5, meaning winds of at least 111 mph. Another respected forecast, from Colorado State University, puts the odds of at least one Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricane touching down along a U.S. coastline this season at 72 percent; the long term average is 52 percent.

If ever there were a time to take a few hours to ensure that you and your family are as prepared as possible in the event a natural disaster hits close to home, now is it. No more procrastination and wishful thinking. Here's a 4-step disaster preparedness checklist.

1. Bring your home insurance policy up to speed. If you live in an area prone to flooding, tornadoes, or hurricanes, I am going to assume you are well-versed in what isn't covered in your standard homeowner's policy, and what requires special riders and additional policies for wind damage. (If not, check out this article on how to make sure your home insurance has you covered in a disaster.) But even if you already have the right policies, it's time to double back and make sure your policy coverage is in sync with current rebuilding costs in your area. While home prices have dropped in recent years, commodity prices haven't, and that means the cost to rebuild could be higher, not lower. At the same time, confirm that you have extended replacement cost coverage. This means that in the event of a major loss, your total potential payout could be as much as 25 percent above your policy's stated value. That extra 25 percent can be a godsend if you in fact run into more expensive rebuilding costs than anticipated. Yes, the premium is going to be a bit higher, but do you really want to take on the risk of being underinsured and on the hook for potentially tens of thousands of dollars of repair and rebuilding costs you're not covered for?

And the reality is that no matter what your home insurance premium is right now, you could be hit with a hike at the next renewal. Before the Tuscaloosa and Joplin disasters, and well ahead of the 2011 hurricane season, insurers were already beginning to raise home insurance premiums in many states, often by 7 percent or so, in anticipation of above-average 2011 disaster losses.

2. Make sure you can stay connected. The Joplin tornado disaster could have been even worse if not for the 24-minute advance warning residents were given over emergency notification systems. In addition to relying on those systems, you can also stay tuned in via your iPhone with the Emergency Radio app by EdgeRift. That said, if the cell towers go down in a storm, that's not going to be too much help. That's why you need a special portable emergency radio that picks up not just AM/FM but broadcasts from the NOAA as well.

Emergency radios run not just on batteries, but can also be operated with some elbow grease through a hand-crank. That's a power source you can count on no matter what, and typically two minutes or so of cranking gets you an hour of power. Many emergency radios also come with an adapter that enables you to recharge your cell phone through the same cranking mechanism.

3. Have a family-wide notification system. Pick friends or relatives who live in other parts of the country to serve as your coordinator in the event your family is separated in a disaster. You can all contact that person to get updates on each other. Another option -- assuming you have internet access -- is to use the The Red Cross Safe and Well website that enables you to register and leave a message on your status after a disaster that friends and family can access. You can also choose to have your status automatically sent to your Facebook and Twitter accounts.

4. Stockpile. Rationally. In case you missed it, the Centers for Disease Control had some great fun with the Rapture that Wasn't on May 21st offering advice on how to survive the Zombie Apocalypse by having a disaster preparedness plan in place. It deftly used humor to try and draw attention to the serious matter of doing your very best to make sure you will be able to take care of yourself in a disaster, before emergency relief arrives. You can read the CDC's blog post for a full rundown of must haves (or check out FEMA's emergency packing list.) In terms of supplies, you'll want to tuck away a gallon of water per person per day (plan on at least three days worth, preferably a whole lot more), and fill some waterproof boxes with non-perishable food and medications. I'm a bit dubious about some commercial outfits pushing specially packaged food that has a 25-year shelf life (the better to store in the garage), in quantities that can feed your family for six months or longer. A week or maybe two seems more reasonable. And by all means, tuck away some non-perishables from the grocery store. A month or so ahead of their expiration dates, rotate the stash to your kitchen to be used, and restock the emergency supply.

Granted, even the most well-thought-out emergency kit might end up being blown away in a tornado or hurricane. But the goal should always be to focus on doing the best with what is firmly in your control. That's an argument for a little disaster preparedness. Just in case.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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