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Surviving a summer hailstorm in your RV

Ever been in a serious hailstorm? No? Neither had we.

Sure, most of us have seen occasional pea-sized hail. My wife, Susan, even encountered sufficiently large hail near Greenville, S.C., that cracked a plastic wind fairing on the roof rack. But until May 17, 2016, in Kerrville, Texas, we had never experienced what real hail can do.

This article is your guide to avoiding, preparing, surviving, and recovering from a serious late spring or summer hailstorm.

Avoiding

What causes hail? Hail is formed in thunderstorms. Look at a towering white cloud. Cumulus clouds are tall, puffy white clouds that rise vertically, but can develop into cumulonimbus (storm clouds). Cumulonimbus clouds can rise tens-of-thousands of feet into the air.

Strong updrafts within cumulonimbus clouds carry water vapor and rain aloft. As the water vapor and rain rises within the cloud, dust particles and other “seeds” attract water molecules to form ice particles. These ice particles become the nuclei for hailstones.

The process is like rolling a snowball across your yard to make it big enough to become a snowman’s body, except with hail the “rolling” takes place vertically.

Hail reaches the ground when:

  1. A downdraft in the cumulonimbus cloud forces the hail to the ground — winds circulate up and down in such clouds.
  2. The size of the hailstones becomes so large that gravity is stronger than the updraft and the hail falls to the ground. In the storm that struck us, high velocity downdrafts drove tennis ball-sized hail to the ground.

There is a helpful NOAA graphic, by Michael W. Lewis, on the Weather.com website. The graphic shows hail sizes from penny-sized (3/4-inch diameter) to softball-sized (3.8-inch diameter). A softball-sized hailstone could weigh as much as a pound. The largest recorded hailstone, which fell in South Dakota, weighed almost two pounds. To view the graphic, click here.

Hail weather app

Preparing

None of us can avoid every thunderstorm, much less every puffy, white cloud. But any of us, with smartphone technology, can monitor what’s going on in those clouds.

First, download the weather app, NOAA Hi-Def Radar by WeatherSphere. The app is available for Apple iOS, Android, and Windows smartphones.

Susan and I did not have this app when the hailstorm struck Kerrville. If we had, we would have had access to information about the storm track/direction, speed, and most of all, cloud heights and the likelihood of hail.

How? On the app’s radar map, be sure the Storm Track “layer” is displayed. Most weather apps have different layers of information you can choose to display or hide. When the Storm Track layer is displayed, touch the sometimes hard-to-see Storm Track arrow on the radar map. That produces a storm information box. [See photos]

Then touch the easy-to-see arrow in the storm information box and a page appears showing the storm speed, your distance from the storm, the chance of hail (expressed from 0-100 percent), maximum expected hail size, and the height of the top of the storm. The higher the storm top, the more dangerous the storm.

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Surviving

“Foreknowledge is forearmed,” as the saying goes. If you see a storm approaching with high likelihood of hail, pull up stakes and get out of its way if you can.

Susan and I dodged a serious flood in the mountains of North Carolina by driving to central Georgia and staying at a Walmart. We had a couple of days’ notice. We escaped a serious thunderstorm, which could have included hail, in Nacogdoches, Texas, by dramatically accelerating our departure time. We had about a half-hour’s notice.

But what if you can’t avoid a storm? You see it on your NOAA app. It’s headed straight for you and there is a high probability the storm may contain damaging hail.

First, cover and cushion everything possible — car/truck sunroofs and windshields, RV exhaust fan outlets and skylights, RV television antennas or domes, and rooftop air conditioners. When the hailstorm moved through Kerrville, Texas, almost everything installed on the roof of all the RVs in the park was destroyed.

We saw RVs in Castroville, Texas, a few weeks later that even had their roofs penetrated by hail larger than hit Kerrville.

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If we had paid sufficient attention to the weather, we would have “covered-and-cushioned” and might have prevented some damage. RV tire covers, especially for big Class A motorhomes, make great covers for rooftop air conditioners and skylights. Put a pillow or a loosely folded tarp under each tire cover, and use duct tape to fasten the tire cover securely to the roof.

Just don’t risk being outdoors when the storm strikes. Lightning, as well as serious injury from large hailstones, is too great a risk. Your car, truck, and RV can be replaced. You cannot.

If you have prepared your RV for the storm as well as possible, consider evacuating in your dingy or truck. Our next door neighbor had more experience with Texas hailstorms than us. He immediately drove out of the park and sheltered under an interstate highway overpass. His truck was saved.

Our SUV was totaled. The windshield was broken, sunroof shattered, the car filled with water, and there was severe hail damage on the hood, roof, doors, and fenders.

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Recovering

OK, you couldn’t dodge the storm. The damage was severe. Now what?

First, get out after the storm and take photos. These photos may be helpful with your insurance company, even if the company later sends out an adjuster to take their own photos.

One reason you want to make a set of photos immediately after the storm is because you will also want to protect your vehicle(s) and your RV from additional damage. More bad weather may follow the hailstorm. During our storm, water was coming into the coach from the broken skylight over the shower, as well as both air conditioners.

More storms were forecast for the following day. We didn’t use our RV tire covers before the storm, but we made good use of them afterward! Tire covers and duct tape sealed all the openings until repairs could be made. Other RVers used tarps.

Second, be sure — in advance — that you have good insurance. How to select an insurer is beyond the scope of this article. Just be aware that in the days following our hailstorm, RVers experienced dramatically different treatment by their insurance companies. The differences included how quickly insurance adjusters arrived, what the insurance companies paid for and what they did not, and the speed with which payment was received.

If there is any non-company specific insurance advice that Susan and I can provide, it would be know your agent personally. You are going to need someone on your side after the storm. We knew who to call. Others, who simply purchased their RV insurance through a big organization offering policies, lacked a strong advocate after the storm.

In addition, be honest when you purchase your policy. If you are a full-timer, declare that and pay the extra premium. You want to have a clear conscience and nothing to hide after the storm.

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Also, be sure to purchase comprehensive coverage. Susan and I know RVers who only carry liability and catastrophic coverage (e.g., insurance with a high deductible that will only help if their coach is in an accident).

However, unless you are sufficiently wealthy to “self insure” — that is, to pay for all the hail damages out of your pocket — comprehensive is a good investment. The damage to our coach was $17,000 and our rig didn’t suffer the worst damage. We couldn’t take that amount “out of our pocket.”

Finally, order parts and make an appointment for service immediately. I thought we were quick because we ordered a skylight for our coach the very next morning. Others actually ordered parts during the storm as things were breaking! The Internet and voicemail are amazing tools, if your communications links remain available.

I also thought we were prompt about phoning to get a service appointment for our coach. But others got up early, drove their rigs out of the park at daybreak, and were lined up at a local RV dealer’s service facility when the staff began to arrive.

That won’t always be possible, of course. But owners of a coach almost identical to ours were able to have a good bit of the damage repaired the next day (skylight, air conditioner shrouds, etc.), while we were covering ours with tire covers.

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After a serious storm, remember that everything is going to be in high demand: parts, appointments at service facilities, rental cars, and even hotel rooms under the worst circumstances. I am not suggesting you shove your neighbor out of the way to selfishly have your service needs met first. Rvers are pretty darned good about sticking together!

But, because I didn’t realize how quickly we should act, it was only by the grace of God and a kind mobile RV service tech, that we didn’t have to endure a week or two of south Texas heat without air conditioning.

Although the adjuster and your photos should help with the claim, you should get a full inspection by a certified RV mechanic or better yet, a trip to the factory that made your RV. We verified with our insurance company that we wanted an inspection at the factory and they agreed. We also confirmed with them that if any additional damage was discovered, it would be covered.

Again, having good insurance and taking the time for a full inspection are keys to a successful recovery.

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Avoid, prepare, survive and recover

We’re grateful we have recovered from the hailstorm pretty well. But we’re sad for others who haven’t yet. We also know of two couples who even gave up RVing as a result as a result of the storm. One of the couples are good personal friends and had been full-timers.

With the steps outlined in this article, we’ll be better prepared next time! Our hope in sharing our experience is that you will be, too.

About Richard Peck

Richard Peck is a certified sommelier in The Court of Master Sommeliers, as well as a certified wine educator in The Society of Wine Educators. He and his wife, Susan, are full-time RVers based in Sonoma County, Calif. They are currently doing a survey of Texas Hill Country wineries and planning a series of articles about everything you wanted to know about wine, but were afraid to ask. To pose a question, email Richard at rich@sojourningsomm.com. To follow their adventures, visit http://www.sojourningsomm.com.

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