By now, we are all well aware of the unprecedented damage that has been caused by Hurricane Harvey in the Houston, Texas area. And, now there is news of another impending disaster. Hurricane Irma is heading for the U.S., and is a very large Category 5 storm with the potential to wipe whole cities off the map.
With this in mind, I would like to provide some guidance with respect to dealing with damages caused by a disaster of this magnitude. Here is a list of some of the things you should do, along with some advice on how to deal with losses to your property and contents.
Okay, so you have three-to-four feet of water in your home or building. What should you do?
First, and most importantly, make sure you and everyone in the building are safe. Safety will be a key theme in this list.
Are there downed power lines?
Are trees on or through the structure, or is there any collapse? If the answer is "Yes," it is not safe to be around the structure until the power company and the fire department have told you it is okay to enter the property. Next, you should take the necessary steps to remove the fallen items and secure your property. If you hire a construction company to help with this, keep all receipts. Your insurance company should reimburse you for all of those costs.
Contact your insurance carrier immediately.
The quicker you begin the process of filing your claim, the quicker you will get an insurance adjuster out to inspect the property. At this point if you sustained significant damage, you may want to hire a licensed Public Adjuster (PA) who will advocate for you. PAs work for you, not the insurance company. They know how to read and understand insurance policies, and can maximize the amount of settlement you will receive from your insurance company. This will make it possible for you to return your property to the condition it was in before the hurricane.
Do not turn on the gas or the power until they are checked out by experts.
This is one of the most important items to pay attention to. If you turn on the gas and power, you could end making things worse. It is difficult to know if there may be a gas leak in the area or if outlets that have been submerged in water could spark a fire. Better to be safe than sorry. Also note that any electrical wires that have been submerged in water should be totally replaced.
So you want to go back to the house or office while there is still standing water in the structure?
Truthfully, I would recommend against this for a variety of reasons: unsafe structural supports, Category 3 water (more on that later), snakes...I have seen it all. However, if you insist on going into the building, I would recommend getting some hip waders before you go. But, again, it is still best to let the water subside first.
When the water has receded, should I go back to my house to check the condition?
Yes, if it is safe, you should. I would recommend that you immediately contact a water mitigation company to assist you. Companies like ServPro and ServiceMaster are trained, licensed and certified in the proper mitigation and drying of structures.
When you are able to return to your property, I would recommend you choose your wardrobe wisely. Here, the idea is safety not style. You want a Tyvek protective suit, work boots, hardhat, gloves and a respirator. The last thing you want to do is become injured or ill as a result of contact with items in and around the structure. Remember, the water is not clean. It is filled with chemicals and bacteria. It is referred to as Category 3 water, and I will talk about that later.
Now that you are in the building, what should you do?
These next steps are key to you being able to properly recover and reach the fairest settlement with the insurance carrier.
Before you move or touch anything, take photos of your entire property. You want to be able to show all sides of the exterior of the house. You also want to use a tape measure to show the water line on the exterior. Above is a photo from inside a home in Houston that had a water level of 44-inches.
Document the contents and extent of the damage to all rooms, preferably using a wide angle lens to capture everything. You want to be sure you have photos of every item in every room in their current location and condition. Once you have taken these photos, be sure to get photos that show:
the interior water mark on walls and contents
your HVAC system, electrical panels, hot water tank
your kitchen cabinets and counter tops so you can substantiate their original quality
Move your contents, but do not discard your damaged property.
You want to move all damaged furniture, appliances, clothing, and other items out of the home and into your driveway or back yard (not to the curb, where they may be removed by dump-pickers or the city). Document each item on a spreadsheet, include the item name, make and model number. Also, take pictures of each item as well. The reason you do not want to discard your items is because the insurance adjuster will need to inspect them to give you consideration for them on the claim. If possible, cover those items with a tarp.
In order to properly mitigate your loss, per your insurance policy language and requirements, you need to start getting the structure dry. The best way to do this is to engage a licensed and certified mitigation company, such as ServPro or ServiceMaster. Again, these companies are trained to effectively remove materials, treat the home, and dry your structure.
I promised earlier to talk more about Category 3 Water. Cat 3 water, also known as black water, contains contaminants, such as sewage, flood waters from rivers and lakes, and chemicals from cars and buildings that have been submerged. As water enters your building and passes through the building materials (drywall, studs, insulation, carpet, flooring, etc.), these contaminants are left behind. Cat 3 water promotes microbial and bacterial growth, and you can very easily contract Hepatitis, E. coli, and other bacterial infections if you come into contact with it. You don't want to end up with long-term problems, so be sure that the mitigation is done correctly and as quickly as possible.
Be nice to your insurance adjuster.
As crazy as this sounds, the adjusters working for the insurance companies are dealing with almost as much stress as you. They have to go into hundreds, if not thousands of buildings in the same situation as yours. The insurance companies put unrealistic expectations on them, which further adds to their stress. Some adjusters will work 20-hour days during this time. Taking your frustration out on the insurance adjuster won't help your case.
Hire a licensed Public Adjuster.
When you hire a Public Adjuster, the workload of all the steps listed above would fall to the PA. As I mentioned earlier, we work for you, and we advocate for you. We will substantiate your claim and detail your lost contents and property using the same software as the insurance companies. We photograph EVERYTHING, and we know what is stated in your policy. With all of this data and knowledge, we then begin to negotiate the best possible settlement for you.
These are trying times for everyone impacted by this storm and storms to come. Help your friends, family, neighbors and even strangers. In times of great tragedy, we as people always demonstrate how we can rise up and support each other.
Our advice is free and puts you under no obligation.
Don't be left underwater by your insurance carrier, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for fast claim response and expert handling of your insurance claim. And, remember the benefits of hiring a Public Adjuster—we handle the preparation of the claim, we act as a go-between and handle the negotiation on your behalf with the insurance company and we can secure a higher insurance settlement than you could get on your own.