Natural Disasters: The Two Most Important Things Owners Should Be Doing to Protect Their Property Investments

“Disaster risk, natural and man-made, is something that is part and parcel of the world we live in. In our times we are also increasingly experiencing the impacts of climate change, with scientists predicting that it will increase extreme weather events, which will intensify the impact of disaster events…,” writes Lizé Lambrechts in “The Knysna Fires Of 2017: Learning from This Disaster”, a collaborative research report between Santam, the University of Stellenbosch and CSIR.

Even a mild winter brings with it downpours that can turn into floods, and summer in South Africa always comes with the risk of fire. “It is important that your house is maintained on an ongoing basis,” stresses Ona Steyn, BetterSure Financial Consultants Director. “Losses due to poor maintenance are not claimable under any insurance policy and can be very costly.”

Steyn points out that being a responsible homeowner goes beyond making sure you meet your bond repayments each month. “Regular and ongoing maintenance of the property is crucial. Not only does this limit the chance of damage from bad weather or a natural disaster, but it will also contribute to the value of the property.”

So, what should homeowners be doing, as a matter of course, to protect their properties from worst-case scenarios? Just Property, is one of South Africa’s largest letting and sales real estate companies. Along with their industry partners, BetterSure Financial Consultants, they have this advice:

“We don’t like to think about disasters, and subconsciously think ‘It won’t happen to me’. But the unexpected does happen, and fires or flood can affect anyone, almost anywhere,” says Just Property CEO Paul Stevens. “No province is immune to fires and floods, which in the past two years have left thousands of people homeless. Property owners need to be prepared for natural disasters. There are many things that should be done to prevent accidents in homes but in terms of natural disasters, property owners need to focus more attention on keeping stormwater away from their homes and clearing vegetation.”

  1. Drainage

Gutters and downspouts channel rainwater falling on the large surface area of a roof into drainage systems that take it away from the building, or into water storage tanks. Leaves and twigs in gutters cause blockages that lead to overflows in the rainy season that can result in costly damage if the water gets into your roof or foundations.

Gutters should be checked and cleared on a bi-monthly basis throughout the year as even green leaves fall, says Stevens. If your property has trees you may need to do this more often, particularly in Autumn and after high winds.

“Gutter guards are a great idea and will reduce clearing frequency,” says Stevens, “but you’ll still need to check at least quarterly that nothing has made it through the guard, and that your guttering isn’t damaged.”

As mentioned above, good drainage prevents water from building up near foundations. After the next rain, check whether there is any pooling around your home as this could be a major issue during a severe storm. If there is, consider whether your landscaping, garden furniture or something else is preventing the water from draining effectively.

If that is not the problem, use a builder’s level to map how your property slopes to get a sense of the drainage plan. Perhaps a tree root or newly-laid paving has affected the drainage. “Extending your downpipe might be a solution, or you may need to install an underground drainage pipe, French drain or dry well,” Stevens notes.

“It’s a good idea to check the drainage around any rainwater tanks too – where does overflow water go? And of course, roof tiles and zinc sheets should be checked annually for leaks. Water can get in through the smallest of apertures and this can be a disaster in a serious storm,” he adds.

  1. Vegetation clearing

The Knysna fires of 2017 cost the South African insurance industry R2.2 billion when more than 900 houses were destroyed or made uninhabitable. Bear in mind that only 77% were insured – many in the “missing middle” could not afford insurance and lost everything. Of the 134 businesses affected, one-third of the properties and over half of the contents were not insured.

It is not only the Fynbos Biome where fire is inevitable and necessary. Grasslands in the Highveld, Zululand, Nama Karoo and Kalahari, as well as the Lowveld savannas, are all fire-adapted. For many South African vegetation types, fires are necessary and inevitable. But, as “The Knysna Fires Of 2017” report says, this means that “the question is ‘When?’ not ‘If?’ there will be fires.”

The report found that vegetation provided a pathway for the fire to reach 74% of the homes destroyed or severely damaged. “Only 9% of homes were ignited from adjacent structures.”

This makes for sobering reading. “As a general rule, trees and vegetation directly around structures need to be kept below five metres in height and not to be in contact with buildings,” says Stevens.

Steyn concurs, recommending that buildings in high-risk zones be nine or ten metres clear of vegetation and that further fire mitigation is implemented in the surrounding 30 metres. This includes clearing dry debris, and scrub and replacing alien vegetation, particularly flammable trees such as pine, eucalyptus, Port Jackson, spruce, and large palms.

“Remember, a spark can ignite combustible vegetation and dry debris around your home even if a fire break stops the advance of the fire front,” Stevens warns. “During this year’s wildfire on Table Mountain, sparks ignited a palm tree in a residential area some distance from the main fire.”

While investigations into the damage caused to UCT are ongoing, the report’s investigation of the 900+ homes destroyed in the Knysna fires found that six had “very limited vegetation within 30 metres” and 38 had “almost no vegetation surrounding them… These were almost certainly ignited by embers and not by vegetation carrying the fire to the home.”

This recalls the devastating fires experienced at St Francis Bay, where many of the homes have thatched roofs. It is essential, says Stevens, that property owners also consider fire-resistant construction materials, especially for their roofs. And coming back to his first point, he again stresses the importance of keeping gutters, and the area around decks, clear of leaves and twigs. “In the dry season, this debris makes perfect kindling for a fire.”

“It sounds like a lot of work, but the cost in time and expense is a fraction of what you’d pay if your home were extensively damaged in a severe storm or lost in a fire. It’s every property owner’s responsibility to their family or tenants, and their community,” Stevens concludes.