A homeowner's guide to natural disasters.

Courting Disaster: Perils Discussed in this Guide


An earthquake is a sudden, rapid shaking of the Earth caused by the breaking and shifting of rock beneath the Earth’s surface. The largest recorded earthquake in the U.S. was a magnitude 9.2 that struck Prince William Sound, Alaska, on Good Friday, March 28, 1964. Thankfully, not all earthquakes are of that magnitude. Whatever their intensity, these seismic events can cause damage to property from ground movement, fire, or even sprinkler leakage.


Devastating floods occur throughout the U.S. every year. Ninety percent of all presidentially declared natural disasters involve flooding. Several factors contribute to flooding. The two key elements are rainfall intensity and duration. Intensity is the rate of rainfall, and duration is how long the rain lasts. Topography, soil conditions, and ground cover also play an important role. According to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), floods cause billions of dollars in property damage in the U.S. every year. Even more alarming, if you live in a high-risk area, your home has a 26% chance of being damaged by flooding during the course of your 30-year mortgage, compared to a 9% chance of fire.


The largest hailstone ever recorded in the U.S. was found after a thunderstorm that pounded south-central Nebraska on June 22, 2003. The stone, measuring seven inches wide and 18.75 inches around, was nearly the size of a soccer ball. Hail is the result of strong updrafts in the atmosphere that carry water droplets to heights where they then freeze and fall to the ground as chunks of ice, also called stones. The larger the stones, the more harm they can cause to people and property. Hail often occurs in violent thunderstorms, along with lightning and strong winds, but is also associated with tornadoes. Hail occurs most frequently in the southern and central plain states. However, since hail occurs with thunderstorms, the possibility of hail damage exists throughout the U.S. In an average year, hail causes nearly $2 billion in damage.


A hurricane is a powerful tropical storm that measures several hundred miles in diameter. Hurricanes need warm tropical oceans, moisture and light winds above them. If the right conditions last long enough, a hurricane can produce violent winds, incredible waves, torrential rains and floods. Deadly as well as destructive, hurricanes pose a threat to life and property from wind, rain or flood. The list of the most well-known and destructive storms include: Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Charley in 2004, and Hurricane Andrew in 1992.


Often the cause of fires or damage to electrical systems and other parts of a house, lightning is caused when storm clouds cool below a certain temperature, and positive and negative electrical charges in the clouds’ water vapor separate from top to bottom. Negative electrical charges at the bottom of the cloud build in strength until a magnetic attraction causes those particles to ‘jump’ to positively charged particles accumulating at the ground. There are thousands of lightning strikes in each state every year, and each has the potential to do great harm to people and damage property.

Power Outage

Power outages can occur in several ways—weather related, or not. The short-circuiting of electrical wiring, as in a lightning strike or a power overload, may interrupt electricity in your home. Water seeping onto electrical wires or into junction boxes, or falling tree limbs breaking a power line can also cause an outage. Food spoilage is an obvious type of loss due to power outages.


In an average year, about 1,000 tornadoes are reported across the U.S., resulting in 80 deaths and over 1,500 injuries. These violent storms can leave a swath of property damage and death behind them. Tornadoes occur most frequently in an area called “Tornado Alley,” a strip of land running from Texas north to Minnesota. However, tornadoes can occur in any state, with wind speeds reaching 200+ miles per hour, torrential rain, hail and lightning.


A wildfire is an unplanned and uncontrolled fire that occurs in the areas where woods and homes overlap. These are not single home fires, but larger firestorms that can threaten multiple homes, and typically burn many acres of forest. In an average year, 140,000 wildfires burn an average of 14.5 million acres. Wildfires are not just a problem in California, Arizona, or Texas, where recent outbreaks have brought national attention. Wildfires have occurred in nearly every state in the country.

Winter Freeze

A lake-effect snowstorm in November 2000 dumped 25 inches of snow in 24 hours on Buffalo, New York. At its peak, snowfall rates of three inches per hour were reported. Winter freezes such as this can immobilize an entire region. Even areas that normally experience mild winters can be hit with a major snowstorm or extreme cold. The impacts include flooding, storm surge, closed highways, blocked roads, and downed power lines. Winter freezes can damage your home in several ways, from bursting water pipes to roof and wall damage resulting from ice dams in gutters.