Calm Before The Storm

How homeowners can protect themselves from what nature may unleash

July 27, 2008|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun reporter

After tropical storm Arthur fizzled, Bertha revved up the Atlantic hurricane season, then came Cristobal, with Dolly not far behind. None of the storms threatened Maryland, but that doesn't mean area homeowners shouldn't be alert and prepared.

"We can get pretty much anything here in the Baltimore area," says National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Strong, who forecasts for the Mid-Atlantic region, noting that summer and early fall storms may cause no damage - or wreak havoc.

Weather gurus have an idea of what's headed this way, but there's little lead time for predicting thunderstorms and specifics of hurricanes and their ilk.

For hurricane activity in the Atlantic, the outlook, issued in May, points to a nearly average to above-normal season - that means a possibility of 12 to 16 named storms, including between six and nine hurricanes, and between two and five major hurricanes. The outlook will be updated early next month.

If your home isn't ready for water and wind, get it in order now, experts say. That can be a tall order for some homeowners.

A generation ago, when Charlene and Bud Kotrla's house was built at the water's edge on Millers Island, the ranch-style home sat a few steps off the ground.

But tropical storm Isabel put it under water in 2003 - as it did many other homes on the tip of the eastern Baltimore County peninsula - and turned the couple's life near the Chesapeake Bay into a nightmarish odyssey that included a harrowing rescue from chin-deep water, life in a freezing federal emergency trailer and multiple insurance battles. The couple eventually ended up recasting their lives to deal with having emptied retirement accounts and doing much of the remodeling work themselves and with friends when the money ran short.

Now, in their rebuilt home, it also means living in the equivalent of a one-story walk-up.

"It's 16 steps, I can tell you. I had groceries today," Charlene Kotrla said recently.

Their house was elevated 14 feet above where it sat before the devastating storm; many neighbors' homes were raised when rebuilt.

The ground floor's concrete block walls have flood vents. They allow floodwater to slosh in and out beneath the living space, rather than put pressure on the building.

Inside, wall outlets and a switch for an outside light are near ceiling height, so Charlene Kotrla has to stretch to reach them. By law, they have to be 2 feet above the 100-year flood level, said John Altmeyer, Baltimore County's chief building inspector.

Bud Kotrla said he reinforced the deck, now one flight up, beyond Baltimore County and federal flood zone building requirements as a precaution.

Upstairs, the house has been remodeled and repaired. The couple lost the third bedroom when they added the stairs to the ground floor. Because wind could turn ordinary outdoor containers into missiles, pink geraniums are silk, tied down in a planter that is bolted to the deck railing.

Lifting the house cut their risks of water problems and their flood insurance premiums.

"I like it and I feel safer," Charlene Kotrla said from her living room, which offers breathtaking views across Back River and toward the bay.

For property protection, homeowners should make two home checkups: annually on the house insurance policy and twice a year on the home itself.

Insurance is a touchy subject amid policyholder allegations that insurers have low-balled disaster claims. Homeowners should review insurance policies with their agent (and other professionals if they're unclear) so they understand it.

"You should make sure that your home is insured to value. That means to the replacement cost of your home," said Karen Barrow of the Maryland Insurance Administration.

It's up to a homeowner to know his coverage, including the exceptions, discounts, limits, deductibles and riders, said Robert Hunter, insurance director of the Consumer Federation of America. For example, repairs may force making an older home meet current codes, which may not automatically be covered, he said.

"It's a good idea to take pictures of your home and videotape your property," said Robert Stastny, a 33-year Nationwide agent in Baltimore. Give a copy, along with home documentation, to a friend elsewhere.

He advised understanding flood risk. If a home is close to water and low-lying, the flood risk is greater. For example, the risk is greater on Thames Street in Fells Point than on Harford Road near Parkville. Flood insurance rates reflect that, he said.

The National Flood Insurance Program and Federal Emergency Management Agency have flood-zone maps, which many insurance companies and local officials use.

"It's an estimate. Just because I am not on the map doesn't mean I am not going to be flooded," said Larry Larson, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

Maryland is using the federal maps and working with federal authorities to update them, officials said.

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