Tips for Checking Your Home’s Structural Elements & Utilities After a Disaster October 5, 2017 – Posted in: Blog
Nature’s forces have always challenged humankind; they have caused incalculable damage to structures and properties, as well as contributing to the deaths of millions of people throughout the world. These devastating events come in many forms. Though some areas are less prone to natural disasters, all areas are threatened by some form at one point or another.
Americans have been hit hard by monstrous storms, like Hurricanes Katrina and Matthew, that affected millions of people and left thousands of homes damaged by floodwater. Ice storms in the northeast resulted in massive structural damage to buildings and their utility infrastructures. Wildfires in the southwest have threatened entire communities, and tornados in the heartland have destroyed homes and businesses alike.
According to CNN Money in 2016, natural disasters created $175 billion in damage worldwide. Two earthquakes in Japan resulted in $31 billion in structural and infrastructure losses. Floods in China created another $20 billion in damages. And in the western hemisphere, Hurricane Matthew caused around $10 billion in physical damage and took hundreds of Haitian lives.
In 2016 there were 160 recorded natural disasters — the highest since 1980. Not surprisingly, the biggest contributor to major structural damage is water.
Floods are the most common natural disasters that affect Americans. The Institute of Real Estate Management reports that naturally caused flooding occurs in all 50 states. Hurricanes are the biggest cause of structural damage from flooding, followed by winter storms, runoff from sudden snowmelt and the subsequent overflowing of civic water control systems.
No matter where you live in the nation, you face the risk of having your home structurally damaged and your utilities compromised by nature. The process for recovering your financial and property losses starts with knowing what to do after a natural disaster. That begins with making a damage assessment, and then forming a safe plan for repairing damage after a flood.
What to Do After a Flood
Dealing with the aftermath of a flood is no small task. The first priority is human lives and safety; that includes your immediate family, as well as extended relations and acquaintances.
Before going too far into assessing and repairing damage after a natural disaster like extensive flooding, you need to do a few things, including:
Notify Family and Friends That You Are OK
News of a natural disaster in any area travels fast. They are often the lead stories in the media and large events will have national coverage, possibly international. Your loved ones will hear about an impending event, and will immediately begin to worry if you are affected.
Fortunately, in today’s interconnected society, it is easy to contact others — either directly, or with platforms like social media. Flooding may knock out your direct utility services, including your telephone and Internet, but you may still have cellphone service.
Simply sending out a mass text message will be faster and easier than individually calling around. A quick Facebook status update that you’re fine will go a long way toward relieving others’ stress, anxiety and uncertainty. Don’t forget to add a quick note about your temporary plans and how you can be contacted if necessary. Facebook now allows you to check-in as “safe” after a natural disaster or other event.
Contact Your Insurance Company
The insurance you carry will determine what types of damage is and is not covered; be aware that some insurance providers don’t automatically offer natural disaster protection. You may be covered for flood damage as the result of a burst pipe or blocked drain, but structural and utility infrastructure destruction from a natural disaster after a hurricane may not be compensated.
Before you start any cleanup or making plans to assess flood damage, make sure to include your insurance company in your actions. Without a doubt, your insurance provider is going to want to do their own damage assessment and will send an adjuster to your site to start processing your claim.
If you start remedial action on your own, you may seriously compromise your insurance company’s responsibility to handle the restoration, always check with them on what is covered and how any expenses should be documented. Not doing so can be an expensive mistake.
Be aware that, after a large natural disaster like a hurricane or flood, there may be many other claimants in the same position as you. It might be a while before your insurer can get an appraiser or adjuster to inspect your home. At very least, record the damage with photos and keep receipts for incurred expenses.
Contact a Restoration Professional
Major flood damage restoration is not a task for the do-it-yourselfer. You could be facing cleanup and repair work costing thousands of dollars and requiring specialized knowledge and sophisticated equipment. Only professional restoration companies have the skill, equipment, and training for what can be dangerous work.
Restoration professionals know more than just how to clean and repair the surfaces in water-damaged homes, they know how to recognize signs of structural damage. These trained and experienced specialists also know what evidence of structural damage to look for that might render your home unsafe to enter until proper shoring or support is done.
Restoration experts also know how to recognize utilities that are damaged and have been rendered unsafe. This might be part of your home’s electrical, gas, or ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Direct damage from water contact or indirect structural damage from the flood can make your home or business a dangerous structure to enter.
What You Can Do While Waiting for Professionals
It is very important that you never enter a water-damaged structure until it has been cleared by your local fire department or other public official. Even after they have given the okay to reenter, if you feel it is unsafe to do so for any reason, wait until a professional can come and assess the damage.
In a major natural disaster — such as a serious flood — where your home is one of many damaged structures, you will likely find that professional restoration companies are overwhelmed by other calls requesting their damage assessment and cleanup services. During that time, depending on the extent of the damage, you may be able to make some attempt to mitigate the damage and begin repairs.
The first thing to do is evaluate your home and assess the extent of the damage. That begins with a perimeter check, where you should step back and look at the entire situation. It is vitally important to be objective and take note of everything that has been disturbed outside.
This includes any shift in your building’s structure that indicates its structural integrity has been compromised. Floodwaters can lift a wood-framed structure right from its foundation, then reset it at an odd angle causing damage. Damage this severe will be obvious to the eye and strongly suggests that it’s dangerous to enter without professional help to assess and support the building until it can be repaired.
Take note of any standing water or ground debris washed up against your home. Loose earth is capable of absorbing tremendous amounts of water that turns into mud. Saturated earth creates hydrostatic pressure that exerts enormous energy against a structure. This great stress can suddenly cause a shift by something as simple as opening a door or walking across the floor, thereby causing a secondary structural failure.
If you note anything at all that indicates your home or business might not be safe, wait until a professional can inspect it. This might be an experienced contractor, an official from the local building authority, or even a structural engineer. They will be an excellent help in evaluating if your home’s structural elements are damaged.
Evaluating Structural Elements of Your Home for Damage
“It’s better to be safe than sorry.” – This is the approach to take when assessing damage after a natural disaster. If you have any doubt whatsoever that the structural elements of your home are unsafe, do not enter. The weight of your home’s frame and mechanical components, as well as other pressure from water-laden loads, may be so severe that your building is ready to collapse given any additional stresses. Do not take any chances.
You may also have been forced to evacuate by civic order and return to find your home posted with a notice or flagged with tape. This could be a “do-not-enter” warning that must be respected until the issuing authority has a second inspection and has granted permission to re-enter the building. The order may be for health reasons, or due to suspicion of structural damage.
If you are legally allowed back in your home and are confident it is safe to enter, certain steps should be taken as part of your overall damage assessment. These steps include:
Check for obvious signs of danger.
Walk around the outside of the structure and look for any potentials dangers, such as downed power lines, foundation cracks, or other signs of danger.
Make sure no one goes in your house who does not need to be there.
You still have no idea of the extent of damage, or if safety hazards are looming. This especially pertains to children and pets; kids are naturally curious and have a limited sense of caution when it comes to a familiar place. There could be dangerous conditions from structural elements, live utility wires or even toxic materials from sewage, mold, or biological pathogens.
If any doors or windows are jammed, do not force them open.
This could be a sign of an excessive structural load. Forcing an opening could trigger a chain reaction and a major structural failure. This should be left to a professional contractor who has the knowledge and equipment to shore up or support any necessary structural components.
Sniff the air.
Foreign odors may be a telltale sign of a gas leak or the onset of mold. Both propane and natural gas have odorous additives to them that allow you to recognize their presence. If you smell a combustible gas, shut off the source if possible. Whatever you do, make sure there is no source of ignition like an open flame or spark. Mold is another toxic substance that always accompanies water damage. Mold can begin to culture within 24 hours of water damage; the longer it sits, the more mold grows. Depending on the type of mold, this can pose a serious health risk.
Watch for sagging ceilings and floors.
Standing water is extremely heavy, at 10 pounds per gallon. It doesn’t take much before a tremendous weight is sitting on your ceiling or floorboards. This could burst from the force of occupant motion and could cause significant injury, as well as further structural damage. Bleed off any standing water by puncturing holes in a bulge, or remove the water with a wet vacuum or a pump.
Evaluating Your Home’s Utilities and Major Systems for Damage
Your home contains more than structural elements that can be damaged by flooding. Your home is a complex array of systems that also include electrical wires, panels and breakers. It has a maze of ductwork for your HVAC components, as well as plumbing supply and drain pipes. Your home also has wiring for phones, television, Internet, alarms, and electrical outlets.
Each piece in your home’s utility systems can be damaged by floodwater. This damage can transfer into making the components themselves dangerous and needing attention before venturing about your home in assessing the overall damage. Here’s what to watch for:
Your electrical system could still be live, with full power still being distributed within the circuits.
Don not attempt to test a specific outlet. Rather, shut off your home’s electrical supply at the main distribution center. You will see a large switch resembling a knife handle on older panels, or a toggle switch on newer models. Cutting the main supply severely reduces the risk of electrocution.
If you have standing water around your electrical panel, do not touch the switch directly.
Water and electricity mix, and this could be a disaster on its own. Instead, trip the switch by using a wooden, non-conductive stick. Don’t rely on protection from rubber boots or gloves. Do not step or stand in water to do this. If you do not feel that you can cut the power safely, wait for a professional such as an electrician to arrive.
Low-voltage electrical systems such as telephones and alarms can also be hazardous.
These are often powered by sources independent from the main electrical system. Locate these shut-offs and disconnect them at the source.
Blocked plumbing drains should be freed as soon as possible to let water drain away.
Be aware of sewage backup that could be extremely toxic and hazardous to your health. It is a good idea to shut off your home’s pressurized water supply at the entrance to the building. Leave it off until you need the potable water for cleaning up.
Pay attention to fuel sources, like natural gas and heating oil.
Leaks in either could create a hazardous situation from both ignition and pollution. It is easy to notice fuel spills by the smell and discoloration in standing water.
Ductwork in your HVAC system easily traps water and creates an excellent place for mold to culture.
You may have to disconnect the ducts and drain them completely. This is a big job and should be left to a restoration professional.
In addition to utilities, take note of incidentals like cleaning supplies and foodstuffs that are damaged by water.
You will likely have to throw them out. These could be contaminated and could make people sick if used or consumed.
Recovering After a Disaster: Additional Tips
Recovering from a natural disaster like a flood can be a long, complex and expensive process. It takes specialized knowledge, years of experience and the right equipment to restore your home to its original and habitable condition.
Here are a few additional tips to help you recover from a disaster:
Contact your insurance company as soon as possible once the flood water is under control.
You can do this by phone, email or in person. Provide the agent or broker with an overall description of your damage. Do not attempt to estimate your own dollar figures.
Provide your insurance representative with a detailed list of damage or loss.
Be as clear as you can and back it up with photographs, receipts or other documents. Again, don’t attach any value to them unless asked. Once you have claimed a particular value, it will be difficult to change amount, even if the actual value turns out to be greater.
Refrain from throwing items out until the insurance company clears it.
Once an item is gone, it may be difficult to establish information about it, and the item may be denied in your claim.
Make copies of all documentation you provide to your insurance company.
That may be paper photocopies, or digital images snapped on your smartphone.
Keep and copy receipts for all additional expenses you incur due to being displaced by a disaster.
This might be temporary lodging, meals, transportation or equipment rental.
Avoiding Unnecessary Expenses When Dealing With a Natural Disaster
If you’re forced from your home during a disaster and its recovery period, you’ll likely be forced with sudden and unexpected expenses, as well as an interruption in income or cash flow. It’s vital to retain as much working capital as possible to see you through this terrible period. Here are several tips to help out financially.
Pay only necessary bills.
For example, if your utilities are severed, stop your account and don’t continue to pay until reactivated.
Make sure you continue paying your insurance premium, as well as the mortgage.
This is critical in order to maintain possession of your property, as well as retaining insurance coverage.
Contact other creditors.
Explain your situation and ask to extend payment times. Notifying a creditor before a payment is due could prevent a black mark on your credit rating.
Recovering Important Documents
Your home probably contains important documents that you need to protect from damage. Make sure you take these items with you before you leave and place them in a safe and secure location:
- Government-issued identification
- Passport or citizenship papers
- Birth certificate
- Military identification of discharge
- Social security and medical cards
- Driver’s license
- Motor vehicle registration
- Insurance policies
- Income tax records
- Deed titles
- Stocks and bonds
- Mortgage documents
One final tip to make a flood experience more recoverable is dealing with wet documents in the aftermath. If immediate drying isn’t practical, simply stick the soggy papers in the freezer until you can dry them properly. Freezing will stop all deterioration and give you some time to figure out a solution.
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