Friday is the official start of hurricane season, and Florida residents might want to add one more thing to their preparation list: a termite inspection.
Termite damage in houses and trees can leave homes vulnerable to suffering even more damage during high winds, says a study published in the journal Florida Entomologist.
Termites pose a double threat: They can make trees more likely to collapse onto structures during a storm, and they can weaken structures before a major storm hits.
The start of the Atlantic hurricane season is also the best time of the year to get a termite inspection because this is when termites start creating new colonies, said Thomas Chouvenc, an assistant professor of urban entomology at the University of Florida.
"It's a good time of year to know if you are in an area at risk," he said.
Chouvenc, one of the authors of the study, looked at two types of termites and their effect on Florida's urban forest canopy.
Asian subterranean termites can get inside the central cavity of a tree and weaken its structure. In the study, Chouvenc looked at the inside of three large oak trees that collapsed in Broward County during Hurricane Irma last year. All three had been hollowed out by Asian subterranean termites.
"These trees should be able to survive" a hurricane, Chouvenc said.
Tampa attorney Peter Cardillo, who specializes in termite damage cases, said it's important to pay attention to trees that are dying or dead. Most termites feed on dead wood, causing trees to become even weaker and more likely to fall in a storm.
If a property owner sees any sign of termites, they should get an inspection immediately, Cardillo said.
"If you don't know you have damage," he said, "you don't know you're putting yourself and your family at risk."
Termite-damaged homes can become particularly dangerous under the stress of high winds.
Homeowners who have termite damage should try to get their homes inspected by a structural engineer before hurricane season to find out if their home can withstand hurricane winds, Cardillo said.
However, some may not be able to afford an inspection.
Another option for homeowners is to install shoring or temporary supports to help brace a building and keep it upright. But that can also be expensive.
A termite-damaged home could be vulnerable to even a Category I hurricane with wind speeds up to 95 mph. It may be too dangerous to ride out the storm in a damaged home.
"The safe thing would be to evacuate as soon as hurricane winds approach," Cardillo said.
Conner Keller of the pest control service Insect I.Q. said termites can cause extensive damage to a home and weaken the structural integrity of the building before property owners even know what's happening.
Florida requires all buildings be treated for termites during construction, but Keller said property owners should continue to have their properties treated every few years, especially right before hurricane season, which runs to Nov. 30.
"The best form of prevention is treatment," Keller said.
The first step, he said, is getting an inspection. Most pest control companies offer to do one for free.
"This is one of those things you don't want to do yourself," Keller said.