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Get your home in shape for hurricane season

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Hurricane in neighborhood | Jim Reed/Photodisc/Getty Images

Officials have raised the government's forecast for the 2016 hurricane season, which officially began June 1 and runs through Nov. 30, and now say it could bring an above-normal number of storms. If you live near the East Coast, you don't want to procrastinate about making sure your home is ready for the season. Once a big storm is bearing down, it may be too late to protect your property.

Following 2 below-average years, this hurricane season is expected to be the strongest since 2012, the year of Superstorm Sandy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, now predicts 12-17 named storms, including 5-8 hurricanes, with 2-4 of them major hurricanes. NOAA's earlier outlook called for 10-16 named storms, with 4-8 hurricanes, including 1-4 major ones.

Note that the Atlantic Basin already has seen 5 named storms this year.

Don't let your guard down. There's much you can do now so you won't get caught making last-minute -- and probably inadequate -- moves to strengthen your home's defenses against hurricanes.

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Where hurricanes strike

"If you buy shutters or other coverings with product approvals and use licensed contractors who pull building permits, you're on your way to protecting your home," says engineer Jose Mitrani, associate professor emeritus in the school of construction at Florida International University in Miami.

"And be sure that inspections are done of the work," says Mitrani, who served on building code task forces after Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm that tore through South Florida in 1992.

Roof cover damage is the biggest reason for hurricane insurance claims that are not related to storm surges, says the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, or IBHS, in Tampa, Florida.

A cascade of trouble can happen when a roof is roughed up by a hurricane: Water gets in through gaps in the roof decking, which soaks the attic insulation, which collapses the ceiling, which damages your furniture and other belongings when wet wallboard and insulation fall on them.

And that's if your roof mostly stays intact. If your roof lacks truss tie-downs known as hurricane straps or its gable ends are unbraced or improperly braced, you stand a greater chance of losing part of or the entire roof over your head.

That's why the IBHS and the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, or FLASH, suggest you take these roof precautions now before hurricane season revs up.

  • Nail or caulk loose roof tiles or shingles.
  • On a metal roof, check for rust and loose anchoring.
  • Install hurricane straps. (Consider hiring a licensed contractor to do this.)
  • Brace gable ends. (Ditto on hiring a professional.)
  • Install a backup water barrier under the roof cover if necessary.

The IBHS also suggests you check your attic's ventilation. Loose eave and gable end vents, soffits and turbines all provide opportunities for water to enter your attic.

Window and door coverings

To a great extent, getting your home hurricane-ready means making sure it's equipped with the right hurricane-resistant window and door coverings. They run a gamut that includes various types of shutters, panels, screens and sheeting, as well as impact-glass windows and doors.

Plywood is cheap but considered an emergency measure -- and it's little help unless you size and anchor it correctly.

Mitrani says even the smallest windows must be covered because in a major storm, smaller openings are actually subjected to higher wind pressures than larger areas such as the side of your house.

The average window area to be covered (including doors with windows) is about 15% of a home's total square footage, according to the IBHS. A 2,000-square-foot home would need about 300 square feet of shutters. If your shutters cost $20 per square foot, you'll spend $6,000.

The IBHS notes that some coverings can be installed only by professionals and cost up to $30 per square foot of opening. Do-it-yourself products cost about half as much.

Beware of contractors who try to sell DIY products, warns Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and CEO of FLASH. "Those are products that are cheap and can't get product approval," she says.

Protecting doors and windows

Some coverings are permanent attachments to your home, such as accordion shutters and "clamshell" awnings. Accordion shutters rest folded and highly visible on both sides of your windows, while single-piece clamshell awnings fold down over your windows from above.

Removable hurricane panels sit in tracks at the top and bottom of window and door openings; only the tracks are permanently attached to the building.

If you live in a condo or a development with an active homeowners association, be aware that there may be rules about the type and color of storm shutters allowed. Check before outfitting your doors and windows.

Also, ask your local building department what's required of coverings in your state or region. Mirtrani says building codes in Florida, for example, require that hurricane products be able to withstand certain levels of impact by wind-borne debris. That means those products have to undergo impact tests to earn approval.

Once your new coverings are installed, take them for a trial run, suggests Tim Reinhold, IBHS chief engineer and senior vice president of research.

"Make sure you have all the parts and everything is sized and fits properly," he says.

Other property precautions

Before hurricanes start forming, do a spot-check from the attic down. FLASH recommends caulking holes in building exteriors and tightening or replacing loose and missing screws and brackets in windows and doors -- including garage doors. Also, be sure to clean out the gutters.

A few final preparation tips:

  • Don't tape windows. Placing those masking-tape X's across your panes may feel comforting, but the National Hurricane Center says it's a waste of valuable time and won't keep your windows or glass doors from shattering.
  • Plan to evacuate a mobile home. Even if you have a newer manufactured home built to withstand higher wind speeds, Reinhold says there's too great a chance of damage from flying debris from older neighboring homes to risk staying.
  • Prepare for high-rise pressure changes. If you live in a high-rise building, be aware that potentially damaging wind pressures increase with height.
  • Batten down the patio/yard. Don't leave anything outside, including furniture, playthings and tools. Trim trees so branches won't bang against the house, and do it early enough so the trimmings can be hauled off before a hurricane. Otherwise, they could become projectiles in a major storm.
  • Gas up before the storm. Fill up your vehicles and emergency power generator well ahead of time to avoid last-minute lines at the pump.

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