Steps to recovery:
In the aftermath of a hurricane it is essential that you enlist and entrust professionals to guide you through the process of restoring your home. Unfortunately, many unscrupulous people see natural disasters as an opportunity to profit and benefit from others’ misfortune and it can be difficult to decide who to trust.
After Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and neighboring communities in Texas and Louisiana in 2017, Dave Daniels, Graduate Master Builder, GHBA Remodeler/Builder and co-founder of 24/7 Restoration Specialists, compiled his tips and thoughts for homeowners attempting to rebuild after catastrophic loss.
If you are reading this, you are probably just like me in many ways. You, your loved ones, your friends, your neighbors were ALL affected in some way by the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. I am one of you. I lost two homes to the storm. FIRST and foremost I am a husband of a beautiful (and supportive) wife Jackie and daddy to three young children (Katherine 5, Jonathan 3 and Hope 19mo).
I am a friend to MANY in the affected areas (I live and work in the memorial area). I also regularly meet and serve alongside MANY great business owners that are and will be helping rebuild Houston. I am also an industry professional with 16 years of experience specializing in remodeling and new home construction AS WELL as storm remediation and restoration. I am a mechanical engineer by degree and hold many certifications for the industry that I serve.
I say all of that NOT TO BOAST, but to establish creditability amongst my community in which I see and hear so much mis-information and bad (ignorant) advice. Please know that in writing this piece, I am taking off my business owner hat and genuinely wanting to serve my community as a friend and neighbor.
This DOES NOT matter for the first 3-4 steps in the process of recovery. It DOES matter in the resources that you use, but the process is still the same for all involved.
The first thing that I want to mention to those WITH flood insurance: I know you want AND need help too, but please be sensitive to your friends and neighbors that don’t have flood insurance. Please hire a professional; flood insurance WILL pay for the cost!!! PLEASE, Please, please Save the resources of the volunteer groups for those WITHOUT insurance; they are the ones that will need the help, the most!! If you still have a group that won’t leave you alone and just has to have something to do (we all have friends like that!) let them help you with the packing of personal belongings that you plan to keep, but that is it! Insurance will cover the rest.
I am not an insurance expert so I won’t dwell on this topic long, but the basics are this: Flood insurance through the NFIP will cover up to $250,000 in structure damage and mitigation as well as $100,000 worth of contents. They will not cover contents manipulation (the cost of packing and storing the stuff that you want to keep), but they will cover the Actual Cash Value for replacing it.
If you don’t have insurance, there is a grant available to help as well as a loan through the Small Business Administration. The FEMA grant is currently for $33,000 and is intended to help make your home safe, it is not suffice to cover the cost of the rebuilding, but it is enough to make the home safe. It is a GRANT and does not have to be paid back. There is an additional $200,000 low interest (1%-2%) LOAN (you have to pay it back) available to those without flood insurance.
The following will be a general list of the next steps that need to be followed. ALL of which need to be followed regardless of whether or not you have flood insurance. The most import of all of these steps is following the SPECIFIC FEMA protocol for flood water clean-up. AGAIN it is the SAME protocol regardless of your insurance situation and is of EXTREME importance to ensure the safety of yourself, your family and those that will be working on your home (volunteer or professional).
As a side bar, for those with insurance, these steps/protocol must be followed and documented to be adequately reimbursed by FEMA for flood water mitigation. If you have flood insurance and do any of this yourself, you are doing yourself a disservice. Also, there is NO exact science or script that covers every house, there are too many variables at play and each house should be evaluated based on depth of flood water, how long flood waters remained in the home and how long the home sat prior to the remediation work starting. Homes that haven’t been entered or touched after 10-14 days will have EXTREME microbial growth and will need to be treated/handled much differently than a home that received water and the remediation process was started the next day.
The other IMPORTANT distinction to make is that flood water is MUCH different than any other type of water that could damage your home, thus the clean-up and mitigation process is much different. Flood water is Category 3 water (technical term for black water or sewage water) and requires special clean-up. If on a normal day, your dishwasher were to leak and damage your home, the mitigation would be handled differently and the majority of the items in your home would just need to be dried out as opposed to thrown in the trash. The issue at hand isn’t moisture removal (that would be easy), the REAL issue is the disinfecting of all surfaces that are trapped and hidden to ensure that all bacteria and microbial growth are remediated.
Regardless, the following steps still need to be followed.
Steps to recovery:
If you have insurance through the NFIP, call them (or your agent) first and get an insurance claim number. FEMA will want this at some point.
The FIRST step after your home has been flooded is to have someone go in, in the appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment) and do what FEMA refers to as a “chemical rinse”. This means that you wear a face mask (preferably a respirator, goggles and protective clothing/footwear) and enter the home.
Once inside you spray a mist of antimicrobial treatment (using a compressed air sprayer and a chemical called Microban or similar product) on EVERYTHING from 2’ above the water line down across the floor. This includes ALL contents and personal effects as well as the wall and floor surfaces.
This is the ABSOLUTE MOST IMPORTANT step of all to ensure the safety of those who will be working in your home. This is a fairly inexpensive process and can be done for less than $100 including the cost of the sprayer, mask, and chemical. Performing this eliminates 90% of the bacteria and nasty stuff that is contained in flood water.
This next step is of equal importance on the financial side. You must have proof of the items that were damaged. Take photos of EVERYTHING! And video too. You absolutely cannot have enough.
You need models/serial numbers of appliances as well as personal contents items that get thrown away. You need photos of the water line in EACH room as well as photos of the room itself from two different angles. Take picture of each item that you plan to claim on insurance.
You also need to document and save a sample of flooring (wood and/or carpet) for submission to an independent testing laboratory (insurance pays for this) to ensure that you are given the correct $ for the replacement materials.
This is something that insurance does not pay for, but that still has to be done. This is where lots of folks need some volunteer help (especially the elderly).
The first step is to identify, mark, document and/or collect all the personal affects that you would like to keep and remove them from the home. Most will still need to be cleaned and disinfected.
DO NOT plan on saving anything that was touched by flood waters, there are a few exceptions but set the expectation NOW. Non-porous items (china, jewelry, guns, etc.) can be salvaged as well as items that were not touched by flood waters (clothes in tops of closets, etc.) but will still need to be disinfected.
Washer/dryer and refrigerators are considered personal items and will need to be documented and claimed on your contents coverage. Other appliances (dishwashers, ovens, ranges, cooktops, built-in microwaves, etc.) will be documented and claimed on the structural portion of the claim.
This is where the heavy lifting starts. This is also where insurance coverage starts for those with NFIP policies.
FEMA doesn’t specifically pay for contents manipulation; however a good professional company should help/include the removal of damaged items in their costs.
All furniture and floor coverings must go. If it was touched by flood waters it is most likely trash. There are special circumstance in which something MIGHT be salvageable, but from a FEMA and safety standpoint ALL items are and should be considered trash. Even if flood water only touched the legs of something, the legs still absorb bacteria laden moisture.
This next point is where a lot of ambiguity and misinformation comes from – water level…As far as FEMA is concerned it does not matter if your home got 1” or 2’ of water, EVERYTHING is removed to a 4’ level. The actual policy states 2’ above the water line, but that is technically for all water depths above 2’. Anything below a 2’ water depth should still be removed to the 4’ level as part of the FEMA protocol. Anything above a 2’ water level would be removed to the water level +2’. Confusing, I know. For 90% of the people affected, you just need to know/remember the 4’ level.
NFIP flood insurance DOES NOT cover the replacement cost of countertops or glass shower surrounds. The countertops must be salvaged and saved. If they were to break, a supplemental claim can be filed, but from the outset, they will not be covered.
Tile flooring is also not covered for removal/replacement unless the flood water has created a delamination issue. They will pay to clean and/or remove/replace the grout and heavy cleaning of the surface of the tile.
All base (lower) cabinets HAVE to be removed. If it is a full height cabinet it must be removed. Upper cabinets need to remain, unless the water line was exceedingly high in the home (above 30”).
All tile shower and tub surrounds have to be removed as well as the shower pan and bathtubs themselves. Keep the tubs on site as they will want them cleaned and reinstalled. Keep your plumbing fixtures, they are salvageable.
All doors, door jambs, door casings, baseboards, lower shelves in closets/pantries must be removed. SAVE door hardware and cabinet hardware – it will be reused.
All sheetrock and insulation should be removed to 4’. All wood paneling will need to be removed to 8’. Veneer stone/brick will need to be removed at fireplaces (if it is solid brick, it should remain until evaluated by professional and/or the adjuster).
The trash should be moved to the FRONT of your home by the curb for the city/FEMA to collect. The trash should be separated into TWO SEPARATE piles. One pile of personal contents that will be going on your contents claim and will need to be inspected by your adjuster and one pile of all of the construction debris. Once all building materials and personal contents have been removed from the home, the silt/residue, remaining debris and dust need to be removed from the structure. Use a shop vac and/or water hose or pressure washer (all depends on how much debris/sludge is left behind) to clean and wash out the house.
After the house is “clean” from the above step, the structure needs to be treated and sprayed once again to kill any remaining bacteria and microbial residue. This is done again with a compressed air sprayer and a product like Microban (bleach is not the best option, as it is very caustic and does not work as well as the commercial disinfectants).
All surfaces need to be sprayed liberally (they don’t have to be “soaked”). Spray from the 4’ cut line down and across all floors and remaining surfaces. Pay careful attention to spray BOTH sides of studs and ins and outs of all nooks and crannies.
This next step is another big area of misunderstanding. Mostly because this is where the scientific portion kicks in and where people really need to depend on a professional or at least get the CORRECT tools to do the job.
The first step in this process is to establish a base line moisture reading at a minimum of two different heights (depends on water depth in the house) and in each room. The location(s) that we use are at the sill plate of the wall (bottom most wood board laid against the slab) and at about 18” up on the wall studs.
The science starts with the baseline drying standard for HOUSTON TX (it varies in different parts of the country). The FEMA standard for moisture content in wood in Houston is 16%. Any wood measuring above 16% needs to be dried and is considered “wet”. If you were to go to home depot and purchase a new 2×4, it would most likely read at about 15-16% moisture content. Different parts of the country with lower average humidity levels will have a lower drying standard and moisture content.
As far as determining the moisture level in the wood in your home, a PIN-BASED moisture meter is the BEST device/most accurate reading (or an infrared meter – but they are $1000). The pin-based meter will get approx. 1/2” down into the wood and tell you if the interior of the wood is dry yet (not just the surface of the wood). Wood dries from the outside in, so the surface will be dry long before the center of the board. As far as the FEMA protocol is concerned base line reading for moisture must be established before drying begins (they want to see the starting point and a downward trend in the moisture content).
FEMA requires a drying log and daily monitoring to pay for the structural drying of your home. The daily readings need to include those moisture measurements as well as relative humidity and temperature in the home. There is no specific number for the relative humidity, but the lower the number the better and the faster the home will dry out.
On homes with commercial drying equipment in them, we have been seeing readings in the 40-50% relative humidity range and have been able to get the moisture content of the wood down to around 12-14%. Regarding the TYPE and QUANTITY of equipment needed to properly dry out a house – commercial grade dehumidifiers and fans are the way to go and most effective at properly drying a home.
There is a science to it and consumer available dehumidifiers (from Home Depot/Lowes) don’t quite cut it. They (consumer models) as well as your home’s HVAC system do a good job of removing moisture from the air, but they do a poor job (or lengthy job) of removing the moisture from the structure. They can/will work, but over a LONG period of time and may not ever get down below certain moisture content.
On the scientific side, moisture moves from wet to dry, so having dry air in your home encourages the moisture in the structure (studs and concrete) to move from the wet materials to the air itself and then the air itself is dried by the dehumidifiers.
The type that work best in the Houston area are called LGR dehumidifiers (Low Grain Refrigerant). The general guideline for equipment is one LGR dehumidifier per 750-1000 sqft and 6-8 fans per dehumidifier. The actual number of fans depends on the layout of the home… The fans need to meet a certain CFM rating to be approved by FEMA; a normal box fan won’t cut it.
With the right amount of equipment in a home and the right weather conditions, it could be dried out in as little as 2 days, with the average being about 3 days. There is no magic number for the number of days; it needs to be based on actual moisture readings and drying of the structure below 16%. Again an accurate detailed drying log MUST be maintained on the home to ensure that FEMA covers the costs and more importantly to ensure that your home was dried correctly.
I have walked through this many times with other homeowners/clients and on my own. The average time that I am telling clients right now is 30-90 days to reach a claims settlement with your insurance company.
There will be some back and for between you and them to get the claim where it needs to be (they may miss some things or inaccurately grade some materials). This is where a professional remodeler or builder will be your best friend. They can consult with you on what needs to be adjusted or what might be inaccurate. These insurance claims are VERY detailed (30-40 pages sometimes) and can be daunting to look at and review.
We typically wait on the claim from the NFIP adjuster before doing any work on the claim/bid ourselves. They are required to sketch the home and put together a claim, we usually double check and verify their numbers/quantities and then work from their claim. There is little reason to duplicate the work.
With insurance claims and disasters of this magnitude, everything is on the table and an open book. You need to work together as a team with your rebuilding professional in order to be a priority to them and to make the process as smooth as possible. This is not the time to penny pinch or second guess professional advice, or else you may find yourself at the bottom of someone’s list.
This is a CRITICAL time to establish trust and to choose someone that truly has your best interested in mind. For most folks that have insurance there is not too much to worry about in this department if you choose the right company and develop that trusting relationship – you have insurance and they are going to cover most of the costs.
Insurance will require a list of the contents that you are claiming (which you, the homeowner, will be responsible for putting together). They will want/need this list, along with the structure claim/estimate that they put together prior to settling the claim.
Again, this is taking my professional hat off and speaking off the record as a friend/neighbor. Every situation is a little different and this should be taken with a grain of salt:
For professional service for the Initial rinse/disinfectant/Large item contents removal/demolition/clean-up/final rinse is running approximately $7-9/sqft (FEMA average).
The structural drying portion of the job (with commercial dehumidifiers, fans, dry logs and moisture monitoring) is running approximately $3-4/sqft (FEMA average).
Equipment packages rent for approximately $300-$400/day per set (1 dehumidifier and 6 fans) and most homes require 2-4 sets of equipment. To purchase commercial equipment the dehumidifiers run about $1700-$3000 and the fans cost about $250-$450.
The square footages mentioned above are for the actual damaged areas (first floor of the home). The demo usually takes 2-3 days and the drying usually takes 2-4 days. The claims portion usually takes 30-90 days. The remodel/rebuilding portion will take 90-180+ days.
The overall process will be about 9-12 months and increasingly longer as the workload increases. Labor shortages existed prior to the storm and will only increase as well as potential problems with materials/supplies being in short supply for certain peak periods of time.
As for collecting monies upfront: there is an actual a Texas statue that prevents companies who have not had a business address in the county or adjacent county to where a disaster has been declared, for the previous year, from collecting any money up front, prior to work starting.
That being said, it is still somewhat customary for companies to collect a portion of the payment up front. We have been asking for 1/3 of the remediation costs, up front, to help offset our direct labor expenses. Most companies don’t have the resources to wait 30-90 days to be paid, especially with the volumes of work that are currently being done. The labor crews/labor force are expecting to be paid weekly as an industry standard.
This is a topic that I will save for another time/discussion. The most important thing now and for the next 30 days will be to make homes safe and to properly mitigate the damages.
It will be VERY important to choose the right professional to help you in the rebuilding process (see some of the suggestions mentioned below). Its of even more benefit if you can find someone who will help with BOTH the remediation AND the rebuilding (it will stream line the process).
Most remediation companies will not rebuild and most remodelers/builders won’t remediate (or they don’t have the proper training and equipment to do so).