WASHINGTON – Torch, radio, whistle – all standard fare in a storm survival kit. Now Americans at risk of hurricane damage are being urged to grab their house deeds and check they are valid, too.
Clear proof of ownership, legal experts say, is the key to unlocking vital government aid after a hurricane sweeps through – felling homes, stealing cars and ransacking whole communities.
With the first hurricane of the season already logged, they said people should act now and dig out their deeds to ensure they carry the right name and there are no conflicts looming.
"Rather than being reactive, this is something that can be controlled prior" to a storm, said Nancy Lugo, attorney coordinator with Bay Area Legal Services in Tampa, Florida.
Lugo's office oversees a Florida program that connects pro bono attorneys with home owners in 16 counties, helping locals get their paperwork in order before it's too late.
Statistics on conflicted titles are not available but experts say disputes are common in hurricane-prone areas.
In 2017, scholars from the University of Georgia estimated the problem afflicted 10% to 15% of land in the U.S. southeast, typically in farming areas or "declining or distressed" cities.
Owning documents and ensuring they are in order should be just as basic as getting storm-ready, said Lugo.
"Have you checked the title to your home? This is the same as getting together water and nonperishable goods," she said.
The hurricane season in the United States typically runs from June until November, with about 11 major storms a year, according to government data and insured losses of more than $500 billion in the past three decades.