Extreme weather events are on the rise. Last year, the U.S. suffered 16 major natural disasters — up 33 percent from the year before — with collective recovery costs of over $300 billion. The seemingly relentless mix of hurricanes, wildfires, blizzards, floods, tornadoes, and droughts racked up the highest bill in history. And it's predicted that this upward trend will continue.

A recent study by Esurance revealed that the vast majority of U.S. residents have experienced at least 1 major weather catastrophe in the past 5 years. And although 80 percent of respondents expressed concern about the increasing pace of these events, less than half believe that their communities are getting better at handling them. Furthermore, only 17 percent felt they were personally prepared for an unexpected natural disaster.

In our analysis, we discovered that people continue to leave themselves and their homes vulnerable to Mother Nature's wrath, despite all the powerful tools that are now available to help. But if we can start to take advantage of what tech has to offer, we could better weather the storms.

Disaster preparedness hasn’t improved

In our survey, 36 percent of respondents said they'd lived through at least 3 severe weather events in the past 5 years. Yet:

  • Only 25 percent proactively prepare for potentially damaging weather events.
  • Just 22 percent own some sort of technology to help them handle severe weather.
  • Even fewer (only 13 percent) could explain their community's disaster plan.

What became evident is that most of us tend to take a low-investment path when it comes to weather prep — despite the potential for expensive and dangerous outcomes. For most people, "preparation" constitutes only the basics: 76 percent have staples like food, water, and first-aid kits.

And even with so many useful tools currently on the market, the use of high-tech and advanced home-based solutions is still uncommon:

  • Only a quarter of respondents have invested in products like generators, hurricane shutters, wet-dry vacuums, or storm panels.
  • When it comes to newer home technologies-such as smart smoke alarms and water sensors that can alert you to flood or fire in your home via cellphone-many people just don't know they exist. In fact, almost half of those we surveyed had never heard of these devices.

Do you store the basics?

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Do you invest in higher cost prep items?

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Have you heard of high-tech options that can help?

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Yes

No

Indeed, it takes a lot of wild weather to get most of us to prepare — even when it comes to personal devices that we generally have on hand at all times. Less than half of those surveyed have something as simple as a cell phone backup and less than a quarter have severe weather apps installed.

How technology can help us prepare for extreme weather

While over 80 percent of respondents would feel more confident about getting through the next big storm if their communities implemented high-tech tools, almost no one (only 3 percent of our respondents) plans to invest in personal tech in the near future themselves.

That's a little surprising, given the current interest in smart home technology. But consumers simply may not know how these tech tools can help in weather events, or how easy many of them are to implement. From smart smoke alarms and leak detectors to wireless emergency alerts and storm trackers, there's a wealth of options designed to help keep families and individuals safe.

Technology you can use to prepare and recover from extreme weather

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Communications

  • Smartphones and tablets have apps to track storms, reach digital radio broadcasts, utilize text bots, and employ social media.
  • Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) — those severe weather warnings we all receive on our smartphones.
  • Social media is a powerful tool, with people using everything from Twitter to Facebook to learn about impending storms and recovery progress.
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Connected "smart home" technologies

  • Smart smoke alarms with built-in weather alerts.
  • Smart irrigation systems equipped with heat sensors can warn you of impending severe weather or approaching wildfires.
  • Connected leak detectors detect water leaks and notify you when they sense water.
  • Smart home security systems and Wi-Fi-connected cameras can help you protect property from afar.
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Digital documentation

  • Use a camera or your cell phone to document your belongings ahead of an evacuation.
  • Insurance companies recommend taking pictures and video of the inside and outside of your home, as well as photographing important documents (such as medical records, birth certificates, insurance policies, etc.)

With so many options at their fingertips — literally — consumers today should be more equipped than ever before to both prepare for and recover from extreme weather.

But storm prep requires a carefully balanced approach. Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, notes that people need a mix of technology and the basics. "You don't want your disaster kit to be completely tech-based," he says. "Unfortunately, technology usually doesn't replace what you should be doing; it just gives you another tool that you can put in the toolbox."

The most critical tool? Proper insurance coverage

Two-thirds of survey respondents cite property damage as one of their biggest fears in a severe weather event — and they have legitimate reasons to be concerned. Consider these stats from the Insurance Information Institute:

  • 1 in 40 insured homes has a property damage claim related to wind or hail each year.
  • 1 in 50 insured homes has a property damage claim caused by water damage or freezing each year.
  • 1 in 325 insured homes has a property damage claim related to fire and lightning.

Proper preparation can go a long way in protecting your property, but recovery in the case of disasters is also vital. "It's important for people to make use of the tools that can help them prepare for weather events, but they also need the right tools in place to get back to normal as soon as possible," says Eric Brandt, head of claims at Esurance. "With the number of claims we're seeing, it's clear that proper coverage for these weather events is more important than ever."

One simple step you can start with, according to Brandt, is to get your documentation in order. Every year, update your inventory to make sure your new purchases and home improvements are included. And going electronic can make documentation accessible from anywhere, which can have a huge impact on the speediness of recovery efforts. Despite the simplicity of this step, only a quarter of people we surveyed had digitized their records.

How technology can help communities prepare

In addition to noting that they weren't as prepared as they could be at home, most people in Esurance's survey believe improvements are needed in their communities and local governments as well. And many felt that large-scale tech could be a big part of how to get there. Indeed, 83 percent of respondents would feel more confident if solutions such as drones and smart electrical grids were available in their communities.

In recent years, technology has come a long way to help us navigate natural disasters. At the federal and local levels, robots and smart devices can alert us to impending dangers, and drones can fly over affected areas to assess damage and recovery needs. Solutions like these collect and analyze data to significantly improve response rates at every stage-ultimately saving more lives and neighborhoods from destruction.

Technology is leading the way to safer communities

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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles — better known as drones — can gain better situational awareness during a disaster and provide imagery for rescue and recovery.

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NASA's FINDER (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response) can detect human heartbeats and breathing under 30 feet of rubble.

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UC Berkley's SALTO is a tiny, flexible robot that can squeeze through rubble and use cameras and sensors to locate trapped people.

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iRobot's Packbot is built like a tank and can remove rubble and open doors with its robotic arm.

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Omni-directional antennas (replacing mobile satellites and cell phone towers) can provide crucial connectivity if the cell towers go down.

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Underwater drones evaluate the safety of marine infrastructure.

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Better weather prediction models and technologies provide more accurate planning and tracking of severe weather.

During Hurricane Harvey, for example, a group of computer coders working for Sketch City, an organization that uses technology for public decision-making, helped 6,000 people find shelter with a mobile texting program built overnight.

Unfortunately, these kinds of tech-based solutions are a long way from being deployed in every disaster scenario — particularly when it comes to public sector use. Raising awareness about how effective new technologies have been on a large scale is key in pushing them forward. But it also requires us working together with technology for the biggest impact.

"If you're using drones to do rapid bridge inspections," Schlegelmilch says, "you still need people to look at the footage to interpret things that a computer can't." It's in the coordination of man and machine that we'll see great strides in life-saving technologies. But only if we use them. "Tech is similar to research," he says. "If it's not having an impact on policy and preparedness, then what's the point?"

In general, though, Schlegelmilch believes that cities are better prepared than they used to be. And local governments are making strides in communication: "Folks are catching on to social media, partly because it's user-generated content. There's a lot you can do without having to rewire an entire agency."

A well-rounded approach to preparedness

When it comes to preparing for extreme weather, Desiree Matel-Anderson, founder of disaster-solution company Field Innovation Team, advises a layered approach. "Look at what kinds of hazards you have in your area and go online and look at maps that exist from public resources about your regional hazards," she says. Once you've identified the threats, finding the tools to help you better protect your family and property will be far simpler.

Of course, here at Esurance, we're all about helping customers prepare for whatever life throws their way. Our advice? First, make sure you have your homeowners insurance buckled up and that you're planning ahead for the essentials — ensuring personal safety for yourself and your family, and protecting and documenting your irreplaceable valuables.

  • Have evacuation and communication plans in place.
  • Charge electronics, like cell phones and tablets, to stay in touch with storm and recovery progress and with friends and family.
  • Invest in cell battery backups so you can stay on top of warnings and alerts.
  • Download apps to alert you of impending severe weather and evacuation routes. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a good one, but many local communities offer their own versions.
  • Stock up on basic supplies, like non-perishables, water, first-aid supplies, and batteries.
  • For hurricanes and other water-related weather, reduce your flood risks with a sump pump (with battery backup), sandbags, and hurricane shutters or plywood for the windows. Place valuables high off the ground.

Once you have the basics covered, consider some high-tech solutions that could make preparation and recovery easier on you and your home. Here are some tips:

  • Invest in smart home sensors and alert devices, which can alert you to impending damage from fire, water, and other hazards. It may just be the excuse you need to finally buy that digital personal assistant or the smart fire alarms you've been eyeing.
  • Angle security systems and Wi-Fi-enabled cameras toward the street to keep tabs on activity around your home. You may be able to spot dangerous conditions like live wires or even downed trees, allowing you to check on your surroundings before heading outdoors. In case of evacuation, you can also monitor damage to your home and know when it's safe to return.
  • Find an app that enables Wi-Fi calling and make sure you know how to use it. Cellphone towers often go down in the event of a disaster, but Wi-Fi through cable is relatively reliable.

Research Methodology

Esurance conducted an online survey from May 16, 2018, through May 26, 2018, of 1,006 Americans aged 25 and older. 525 survey respondents were from the 20 states with the highest number of $1 billion storms in the past 5 years based on NOAA data. The remainder are a national sample.