Aftermath of a Natural Disaster: Lessons Learned from Katrina, Rita & Ike

Posted on Saturday, September 2, 2017

By Bryan Blevins

*This blog post is not intended to be legal advice. It is purely informational and educational in nature.

After having the unfortunate opportunity to represent clients recovering from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike, I know that the first urge is to get into homes and businesses and start ripping out waterlogged carpets, ruined furniture and start repairs. However, those with applicable homeowners, flood and business insurance will face another issue: delays in accessing their insurance money.

For homeowners with mortgages, the money will go first to the financial institutions that hold their mortgages. Only after homeowners can prove they have done the repair work will banks and other mortgage holders release the funds. “But I paid my premiums” is the most common refrain we will hear when trying to assist policy holders. It's been almost ten years since Ike struck Southeast Texas some of the difficult lessons learned have been forgotten.

There's lots of documentation required when submitting an insurance or relief claim, including receipts, photos and inspections. If your property is mortgaged, the federal government-controlled flood insurance program requires mortgage company sign-off to prevent homeowners from getting a big check and then walking away without doing any of the repairs, leaving the mortgage holder with a damaged house that goes into foreclosure. As a result, homeowners may have to wait a long time for repair funds. Some banks may be efficient and responsible about releasing funds while others may scramble to find employees to document repairs, inspect the progress and process payments. The reality is that these safeguards benefit the banks but who is really watching out for homeowners?

The more fortunate among us will pay for repairs upfront and expect to be reimbursed later. Some insurance adjusters offer insureds an advance payment that doesn't have to go through a mortgage company or bank first which is a substantial benefit for policy holders

While policy holders focus on getting their homes and businesses repaired, they have to also document the loss of personal property, equipment, inventory and revenue. It's important to spend time making a complete list of losses. Initially, insurance adjustors focus on building damages such as how high the water got and the nature and quality of the construction materials. You may not immediately need the list of damaged personal property, equipment and inventory but DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. Also, keep receipts for everything from garbage bags to plastic boxes to wet-dry vacuums.

Don't just haul your waterlogged carpets, flooring, mattresses, appliances, furniture, etc. to the curb until an insurance adjuster has had a chance to examine them. Photos of the damaged property are not enough; adjusters particularly working through the federally-administrated flood insurance program require the actual damaged building materials and contents. Store them in the backyard, driveway garage, back alley or other location.

It's important not to launch into repairs until an adjuster examines the damage. Temporary fixes are okay but nothing permanent. If immediate repairs are necessary, then photograph and document every step of the process. Immediately notify your insurance company of any losses. You don't want to be at the end of the list, according to Insure.com, a consumer information site.

Homeowners, more so than businesses, are likely to forget or miss personal property losses and additional living expenses in the aftermath of such a horrific event. However, most policies allow direct payment of personal property losses to the insured free and clear of the bank, based on evidence of loss not replacement. You don't have to, and probably won’t, replace all the personal property lost, but those additional funds may allow you to cover the gap between making property repairs and insurance reimbursement.

Make a list of all of your damaged property. FEMA has an inventory list that is available online here: https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1404409110266-d93226fb52d05ff0dcb9eb036719cd3e/FEMA_Form_086-0-6.pdf

It's important to document every loss from shoes to bedding to refrigerators. Be as specific as you can on the forms, including model numbers and brand names. If you were able to save pictures of the inside and outside of your home, they may both refresh your memory and identify items lost. Find receipts if you've remodeled recently or bought new appliances so you can use them as evidence of value including credit card and bank statements.

As you go through the process, write everything down in a notebook. It's important to keep detailed records, says Insure.com. Take notes of conversations (information, promises, assurances, representations) with insurance adjusters, agents and FEMA officials. GET/KEEP THIER CARDS or write down their name and who they are representing. If you run into troubles later in getting payments, you can refer back to those notes.

Be aware of social media information which can be very valuable in terms of other experience, but also verify before relying upon non-official sources A potential source is Nextdoor.com, the online website where neighbors can share information. Below are some tips that may be of assistance to you:

CARS

Flooded cars are typically covered under a comprehensive motor vehicle policy. Contact your insurance agent to file a claim.

WOOD FURNITURE

What do I do with wood furniture that was under water?

If it's solid wood and it was removed from the water quickly, there's a good chance of saving it. Waterlogged solid-wood furniture will dry in four to six weeks. Most finishes, including shellac, will survive if they are not in water more than five or six hours. They can be cleaned with soap and water or Murphy Household Cleaner Oil Soap. If they've blistered, they can probably be refinished. The bad news: furniture made with particle board - even expensive veneered pieces - usually can't survive sitting in water for a long time.

SOFAS/UPHOLSTERED PIECES

If upholstered pieces were submerged long, the outer fabric, inner padding, springs and frame may not be salvageable. Upholstered furniture with mild water damage may be worth trying to clean. Remove the covering and padding from the frame. Discard cotton padding or stuffing. You may be able to dry, sanitize and reuse padding made from other materials. Remove tacks from the frame and fabric. Wipe off the springs and frame; dry all metal parts. Apply rust-inhibiting paint to the springs. Allow wooden frames to dry. Wash upholstery fabric or send it to the dry-cleaners. Some fabrics can be cleaned; many cannot. If there are water rings, the piece probably will have to be reupholstered.

MILDEWING FURNITURE

Take it outdoors and clean the surface with a brush or broom to remove loose mold. Vacuum the surface fabric to pull mold out of the fibers. Dispose of the vacuum cleaner bag carefully to avoid spreading mold spores. Wipe any remaining mildew with a cloth dampened with detergent suds. Avoid soaking the fabric and getting water into the padding. You also can wipe it with a damp cloth dipped in a solution of 1/4 teaspoon chlorine bleach and 1 cup water.

FLOORS

Are my wood floors salvageable?

Wood swells when it gets wet and shrinks when it dries. Floors soaked for days will probably have to be replaced. If the water receded quickly, you may be able to replace some boards and refinish the rest. The key is getting the water out quickly. If you can pull up a few boards and use a wet/dry vacuum to suck up the water underneath, then put fans in every room to speed the drying, you may be in luck.

WET CARPETS

Remove (save) as soon as possible to reduce mildew in the house. If carpet has been under contaminated floodwater, it should be discarded or steam-cleaned and dried thoroughly. Padding must be discarded. When handling or cleaning water-damaged carpet, wear rubber gloves for protection. You may be able to save carpet that has been soaked with clean rain water. Contact a professional carpet cleaner for estimates. If you do it yourself, drape carpets and rugs outside and hose them down with cold, clean water. If they've already dried, have them professionally cleaned or rent a heavy-duty steam-cleaning machine. Use a stiff-bristled broom to work in a low-sudsing, disinfectant carpet-cleaning product. Rinse thoroughly with a solution of 2 tablespoons liquid chlorine bleach to 1 gallon water - unless your carpets are wool. Dry carpet completely. Hire pros to lay the new padding and the cleaned carpet for best results.

CLOTHING

Can I salvage clothes that were in flood water?

Yes, but speed is critical to prevent fading and mildew. And be aware that floodwaters can contain sewage and other harmful materials. Wear protective gloves to handle wet clothing, and separate washable garments from those that must be dry-cleaned. Do not store wet clothing in plastic bags. Wring as much water from garments as possible and hang them in well-ventilated areas to dry. Rinse washable, like-colored garments several times in cold water to dilute the soil. Soak heavily soiled items overnight in cold water and liquid detergent following initial rinses. Then begin the "real" washing and disinfecting to kill harmful bacteria. Disinfectants include chlorine bleach (2 tablespoons per washer load will be effective), quaternary ammonium compounds and pine oil phenolic compounds, all of which are available under various brand names at grocery stores. Washable garments with water-based stains need to be cleaned with water-based detergents. Remove oily stains with solvent dry-cleaning solutions. Some oily, petroleum-based stains are more easily removed with liquid detergents than with powdered products. Rust removers may be used on washable clothing for rust stains. Some laundries will accept wet washable garments for washing, but it's best to call ahead.

SHOES

Let shoes air dry - heat from dryers will shrink them. If they are particularly dirty, disinfect them and try using a leather cleaner or saddle soap to get them back into shape.

Can anything be done for mildewed leather garments or furniture?

Leather and suede garments, as well as leather upholstery, can be cleaned with the fungicide product ConSan Triple Action 20, available at most hardware stores. Be careful; this product can stain.

MOLD

How can I prevent mold from forming?

Get to work right away. Even if just an inch or two of water entered an area, the potential for mold must be addressed. It only takes 48 hours for mold to germinate. Dry everything quickly. For severe moisture problems, use fans and dehumidifiers and move wet items away from walls and off floors. Clean all hard surfaces with a detergent solution and hot water. Use a stiff brush or cleaning pad on block walls or uneven surfaces. Rinse them clean with water. Disinfect with a mild bleach solution; about 1 cup bleach per gallon of water. When disinfecting a large area, make sure the entire surface gets treated. Avoid excessive amounts of runoff or standing bleach. Don't rinse or wipe up the bleach. Let it dry naturally.

Caution: Never mix bleach with ammonia - the fumes are toxic.

If the odor doesn't go away, try the wash-rinse-dry process again. If that doesn't work, contact a licensed contractor for professional cleanup. If you can't get rid of the mold, consider removing the contaminated surface. Remove all drywall to at least 12 inches above the high water mark. Save a sample of the contaminated surface and store it outdoors until insurance adjusters arrive.

Can cleaning mold hurt my health?

Yes. Exposure to mold can occur during the cleaning stage. Mold exposure can cause allergic reactions, asthma episodes, infections and other respiratory problems. Wear rubber gloves and a mask or respirator during the cleanup and whenever handling moldy materials. Make sure the working area is well-ventilated. Wear protective clothing that can be easily cleaned or discarded.

BEDDING

Should I discard wet mattresses and pillows?

Cleaning and renovating them may cost more than buying new ones. Pillows filled with feathers, polyester or foam rubber may be salvageable. First, brush off surface dirt. Wash feather pillows by machine or by hand. If the outer ticking is badly damaged, transfer the feathers to a muslin bag larger than the pillow ticking. (Hint: Stitch an open end of the ticking to an open end of the bag. Shake the feathers into the bag, then stitch the bag closed.) Wash in warm water 15-20 minutes, adding a disinfectant. Rinse with warm water several times. Squeeze or spin excess water from the pillow and dry it in the dryer or line dry. Wash polyester fiberfill by hand in warm water with a low-sudsing detergent and disinfectant. Rinse several times, and squeeze or spin off water in the washing machine. Fiberfill pillows may be dried in the dryer or line dried. Foam or urethane pillows should be dried away from heat and light.

TAP WATER

Is yellow tap water safe to drink?

It is always best to boil discolored water. Avoid smelly or discolored water. Discoloration usually indicates a buildup of iron and manganese, two common elements found in tap water. Call your local public works department; they can flush out the pipelines in your area. Once that's completed, run your tap water for a few minutes. Health officials will warn the public whether water must be boiled or avoided.

CAR

My car flooded. What do I do now?

If heavy rains left your car soggy, here's how to handle it:

1. Find your vehicle: The city may tow vehicles stranded in high water. To locate your vehicle, visit findmytowedcar.com.

2. Don't try to start your car. Starting your car can fry the electronics or flood vital engine parts, causing more damage than might otherwise have occurred. Get your car towed to a nearby mechanic who can check it out.

3. Contact your insurer. They'll be able to help you with things like towing, repair and rental, depending on your specific coverage.

4. Arrange a rental as soon as possible, if one is needed. In a flood event, you won't be the only person in need of a rental.

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