Although Hurricane Florence is gone, the destruction and damage remain. And hurricane season runs until Nov. 30, which means that the potential for serious flooding isn’t over. Add in autumn rains with rivers, streams and lakes possibly overflowing their banks, and homeowners may still have to contend with wet, soggy buildings and saturated personal property.
Dealing with flood damage in a dwelling is a bucket-list worst experience. There, that’s right out on the table. A home becomes a mess of such significance that it’s hard to see as a home; it’s a depressing mess that quickly becomes an emotional and logistical monster.
Surface water floods are daunting and potentially dangerous within which to conduct recovery. Any surface flood water is immediately considered Category 3 water, as defined by the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC). It’s often called “black water” and is described as “grossly contaminated” by IICRC, which sets standards for professional water damage restoration.
Yuck — now what? Flooring, walls, doors, personal effects, Grandma’s clock, the dog’s bed, sofas, beds, you name it, covered in gunk. Walls popping bursts of what appears to be mold, the air in the house thick enough to cut and smelling of the back corner of the basement. What’s to be done with it? No one has experience dealing with this, the insurance adjuster says no coverage, everyone in the neighborhood is in the same condition, and the next step is yours. What???
Thank goodness the most useful tools you will need to turn that “what” into action can be found within yourself: organization, understanding, elbow grease and a little dose of patience.
You’ve got this
First, be sure you’ve filed a claim with your homeowner or renter’s (and auto, if warranted) insurer. Yes, if it’s a flood loss and you don’t have flood insurance, your carrier may tell you there is no coverage, but forge on and file the claim anyway. Then, ask your agent to provide a quote on a flood insurance policy. Do it now as there is a 30-day waiting period for coverage after you apply for the policy, and you want to be ready for the next time.
Advise the organization that holds your mortgage about the loss, as there may be payment moratoriums available. Be sure to keep detailed records, as you may have income tax benefits available. Finally, keep your employer posted on what you are encountering.
Register with government agencies
You will need the claim information and outcome (denial or payment) to provide to the government agency with which you register for assistance. Yes, you do want to register with government agencies. There might be immediate assistance for living costs that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides; FEMA also has guidance to help coordinate efforts with local aid organizations or government agencies. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) coordinates with FEMA, but the aid from the SBA is typically in the form of low-interest loans. Absent someone handing you cash, it’s the next best step. Both agencies accept applications online, and a smartphone works fine for access.
You should also ask your neighbors what they’re doing. Share information — crowd-sourcing what comes next can be very useful.
The sorting process
You’ve got a mess, but when you look at it with a sense of urgency you’ll get a little guidance on setting priorities. You’ll see personal effects and house finishes that are destroyed, even to your unpracticed eye. If you list the work to be done, personal effects are the first things to deal with as they’re in the way of the rest of the work. If they’ve been exposed to water, they are total losses so they’ve got to go.
Again, organization is key:
- Make a list of the items that you remove from the insured premises (description, quantity, model numbers, and unique identification),
- Take video or still pictures of each item,
- Put on your protective hand covers, eye protection and respirator, and
- Haul that stuff out to a dumpster, the curb or your local waste disposal site.
Cry a little if you need to, but it’s got to go. If you have any hesitation, remember: black water, grossly unsanitary.
Once all the personal effects are out of the house, consider what portion of the dwelling needs to be removed. Don’t wait for an insurance adjuster or government person to see the damage, because waiting can make hazardous conditions worse. Take pictures and tell the claims processor what you’re planning.
Before you start swinging a sledgehammer, however, step back and consider:
- Am I or my family physically capable of doing the work? Even healthy persons are subject to problems due to the unsanitary conditions, the unconditioned air in the house, pathogens that may be present, and physical dangers such as soft flooring, sharp objects, the weight of wet and damaged property, or asbestos content. Many hands doing safe work is key. Again, working with neighbors or family may be your best approach.
- Are there unsafe conditions that may need professional guidance? Check out asbestos resources, mold resources and speak with local authorities for additional guidance. Be sure to protect yourself as well as possible if you do the work yourself. Be sure the space is well-ventilated, use respirators or face masks and eye covering, and wear safe shoes or high, waterproof boots. Wash your hands regularly.
The practical side
Expect that the demolition will task your physical and mental well-being. Drink lots of water, get lots of rest and try to eat well, not conveniently. Ibuprofen will be your friend. Pile all that demo stuff at the curb or in a dumpster, and know that all your neighbors will be doing the same.
Once damaged walls, fixtures and flooring are out and power is available, you need to dry out the exposed framing. You would be well-served to hire a professional to manage the drying and sanitizing process, although that may be easier said than done because the restoration companies will be busy.
If you’re doing the drying yourself, consider two actions that are needed: air movement at the damaged areas and dehumidification. The movement evaporates the moisture from the materials and the dehumidification allows you to move the moisture out in liquid form. Be prepared for this process to take time — even days — after an extreme flooding event.
Then, hard surfaces and dried framing should be wiped down with a sanitizing solution of water and bleach (1/2 cup bleach to two gallons water). You might even need a mold retardant spray to treat the surfaces in addition to the sanitizing solution.
On to repairs
Once the damage to the structure has been removed and dried, consider what needs to be repaired for the dwelling and compile an estimate. This step may well require a contractor, which is a whole other challenge. Consult with an architect or engineer, and local authorities to see whether you need to take additional action to protect your property from future flooding or whether there are floodplain issues to address. In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, for example, some homeowners may be required to raise their homes several feet above the current elevation.
As you already know, at that point there’s more to the repair than the physical work. There is temporary lodging, funding of the project, interaction with local authorities, keeping the family sane, maintaining regular schooling for the kids and trying to work. But you’ve arrived at the tunnel in which you will find the light of recovery on the way.
Organization, understanding, elbow grease and patience. Yes, having finances to support the project is also important, but these four abilities will carry the day.
Patrick D. Kelahan is the forensic market strategist for H2M architects + engineers in Melville, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.