Advice to South Carolina Flood Victims: From Multiple Floodies on the East Coast and Gulf Coast
Although not the GIS-centric or art-revolving -- or strange mutant hybrid of the two -- rantings typically associated with this blog, I've decided to write this here primarily for lack of space elsewhere. When I got to three pages of notes in preparation for this, I knew there was no way in the home of Hades that this was simply going to be a Facebook post. Anyway, now that this has been said...let's continue.
CAROLINA, FOREVER TO THEE
If you have been following the news lately or tracking Hurricane Joaquin, then you know that the East Coast has experienced substantial flooding in the past week. Beginning last weekend...and the most recent flooding being days ago. One such unfortunate recipient, my home state of South Carolina, has taken a remarkably hard hit. We're talking houses completely submerged in water, dams breached, roads crumpled from shear force of the waters rushing beneath them. Thankfully, my family have not been badly affected...but many people were not as lucky.
My first experience with flooding was in Houston this past Memorial Day weekend. The only real impact it had on myself was having to spend a couple days working from my apartment...but again, many people had much more serious things to worry abut. From that, however, I've gotten to see how people handle situations like this -- coming together as a community, lending hands, and offering sage advice for others. I've witnessed some of this through a Facebook group specifically created for those affected by the flooding in this area.
Since I am so far away from home and cannot physically offer help, I thought I'd help in one of the only ways I knew how -- by reaching out to others. I asked those in the group to give any tips they have found to be helpful, as well as tidbits they've realized throughout the process. The remainder of this post is a collection of pieces of advice, tips, and encouragement from floodies in Houston. Here's to hoping they can do someone back home some good once the waters clear.
FIRST THING'S FIRST...LET'S MAKE IT PERSONAL
Take care of yourself. It should go without saying, but make sure you get enough rest (both mentally and physically) and proper food. Things will be in the same state after you've slept, had a meal, or gotten some exercise, but you will be more levelheaded and better prepared to deal with them.
Keep rash decisions to a minimum. Easier said than done, especially since hindsight typically is our only indication of what is rash...but try not to make them. The first couple weeks are a whirlwind and often leave floodies so flustered that their decisions don't reflect their best moments. Some ways to help minimize this are to find out as much information as you can from people who have been in the same situation and to get help from others. This includes packing, demolition, etc.
Don't be too proud. Not to sound like a broken record, but...enlist help from others, even if you think you can handle it yourself. It helps to have a second (or third, or fourth) set of eyes on things...and honestly, you energy can be better spent elsewhere.
Be patient. Former floodies have passed along that no matter what you do, it can typically be about a 6-month timeline before getting back into your home. This is not that game we all play on road trips where we try to beat the GPS's ETA. There are a lot of moving components here.
Don't set your expectations for the empathy of others too high. This is more so one of those save for later lessons, but try not to expect your non-flooded family and friends to understand what you're going through...especially when it comes to the long term. Although many of us try to empathize as much as humanly possible, we are in fact humans. Those not directly affected often forget the destruction fairly quickly.
EMBRACE YOUR COMMUNITY
Social media groups, for the win. Community groups, such as Facebook groups for your neighborhood/area, are great for sharing information. One resource example is the Floodie Buddies Facebook group, what was started in NJ during Hurricane Sandy. Having a local community at your fingertips is highly recommended. It makes sharing easy and gives you some sort of safe haven to keep in mind you're not alone in the process.
Look for ready-made groups for volunteer efforts. Many areas typically have organizations already established within it that may be more capable to hit the ground running, such as church groups. These are great places to start when spearheading volunteer efforts and spreading word. Here, several organization (like the Jewish federation, Jewish family services, etc.) banded together to organize help, donations, and the like. Keep in mind, people want to help but often don't know how. Use that "mob mentality" for the good of man.
Help those who can't help themselves. -- Many people are thankful to have family, friends, and/or neighbors to check on them when times are hard. Some people (*cough* like those of us whose closest family member is 1,000 miles away *cough*) aren't privy to that...or are not as capable in taking care of themselves. When checking in on others, make sure to keep those people...especially the elderly...in mind.
ASSESSING THE DAMAGE
Tag team damage assessment. Remember when I said not to be afraid to enlist help? Re-iterating that here. One idea several have mentioned is when you go through your belongings to assess the damage, have a friend or family member jot down everything rather than doing it yourself. Takes half the time and gives you a record of material loss. Silver lining.
Door to door assessment in a close neighborhood can be a true gift. If you are part of a local group, a good idea is to get boots on the ground and have people go door to door to aid in assessing damage. The quality of assessment does not have to speak to the level of what you would expect of an adjuster, but basic inventorying goes further than you'd think. When doing so, make a spreadsheet with the individuals' names, contact information, next point of contact, etc. Some people may be in shock and not in a state to reach out. After gathering information, help to provide these names to charities to get them the proper assistance.
Side note for #2, here. Although not mentioned by those I spoke with, this is a suggestion from my own grey matter. Should you do door to door assessment, I'd advise making note of whose information was given to whom (i.e., organization, name, number, etc.) out of responsibility. Even though we want to see the best in people, this type of information could be harmful if passed into the wrong hands.
RECOVERED VALUABLES & BELONGINGS
Store belongings locally...or better yet, smartly. Any belongings you are able to salvage can be stored at the place you're staying temporarily (if not at your current place) or at a friend's/family member's place. They can also be stored in a storage unit, but be smart about it. Put pallets down first with nothing touching the walls. Cover it all with plastic -- tops and sides -- to help in the event of unexpected water.
Store valuables in a safety deposit box. Store valuables and important documents in a short/long term safety deposit box (or with others you truly trust) to ensure they don't fall into the wrong hands.
HOME SAFETY & WARDING OFF LOOTERS
Lock it up. First thing's first, lock up if you are not there. (Kind of a duh moment, but it may be the furthest thing from your mind.)
Make it evident there is nothing to take. If everything is cleared out of the structure, leave any curtains/blinds off to show there is nothing inside to warrant breaking in.
Make it look lived in. If everything has not been cleared out, keep lights on or put them on timers. Keep your yard maintained, and post security signs/stickers whether or not you have the service. Keep newspapers and flyers picked up, and either pick up or forward your mail. Move cars around, and be visible to neighbors...In other words, make it look as if someone lives there, even if no one is at the time.
Keep an eye on any belongings left outside. Because of the method by which things are disposed of (i.e., curbside removal) and the necessity to move belongings out of your house, also have a plan about watching anything that may need to stay outside for long periods of time. If possible, do not put them in view of the street or near piles of debris.
MITIGATION & PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
Wear proper clothing and protection. When working in a flood damaged structure, be sure to wear gloves, glasses, masks, heavy duty shoes, etc. You don't know what you're touching. Some things can result in contact dermatitis, pneumonia, or even dysentery (yes, it exists outside of the Oregon Trail).
Shots, shots, shots...Well, tetanus, that is. If you aren't sure of when you last had one, get a tetanus shot.
Be cautious of any large, upfront costs. Be wary of clean up crews like ServePro, who often just come in and hand over a bill afterward. Although this is the expected way of doing business, it may be a while before receiving any funds from your insurance or FEMA. At least one individual I spoke with says it has taken almost four months to receive the Proof of Loss from their insurance adjuster.
Make sure remediation certifies work. Check your insurance policy, as well as the United Policyholders website, for further research.
Buy, don't rent, equipment. Try to avoid renting fans, heaters, dehumidifiers, etc. for drying out the structure immediately following the flood. Instead, open the windows and rip out the wet sheet rock to dry. If you choose to get equipment, it is recommended to purchase a dehumidifier rather than rent since it's the much cheaper option in the long run.
Hold off on ripping out blackboard/gypsum base(s) before drying. Although you should remove sheet rock post-flooding, wait to rip out the backboard and gypsum base behind it (if flooding was not substantial) until after the house has had a chance to dry out. Once it has, test it for moisture/mold and determine if it needs to be removed. If using a remediation company, be sure to tell them not to remove it...or they will go HULK SMASH on it as well.
Cover any belongings that stay in-house.Obviously, it's best to keep as much as you can. If some of your things were spared but cannot be moved (i.e., oven), cover it prior to mitigation. Exterior doors and shutters are often fine. If drywall can be removed without tearing out cabinets, don't tear them out. It can be done later.
Do as much work yourself as possible. If you do not have flood insurance, being your own contractor may be the least expensive option. Also, if physically able (regardless of presence of insurance), try to do some of the demolition yourself...well, not just you. Enlist some friends and family...but wait until word comes from your adjuster before tossing out furniture, etc.
Sanitize, sanitize, sani-tize. Once furniture and damaged belongings have been removed, it's not a bad idea to sanitize your home...by not a bad idea, what I really mean is Do it, please please please do it. This can be done by a company...or some elbow grease. A bucket, water, bleach, large broom, and wet-dry vac go a long way.
Look for SBA loans to help with upfront costs. Since it typically takes so long to be reimbursed, one of the largest hassles is cost. SBA, or Small Business Administration, loans are a possibility for handling costs during the process, helping to cover additional costs that may arise. For instance, one individual has circumstances where structural issues (i.e., foundation, electrical box, etc.) not associated with the flood were found while repairing damage. Regardless of how they occurred, they still needed to be updated to be brought up to code. This way, with SBA's disaster loans, they were able to provide a letter to SBA documenting the damage to bring the house up to code and include a quote from the contractor. SBA then included the additional amount in the loan. Update Oct 13, 2015 (11 am) -- It should be noted, per feedback from several victims of Hurricane Sandy, that typically, the state will first offer SBA loans prior to offering grants. If you qualify for a loan (and take it), then the grant you apply for later may be reduced by the amount of the loan. The timeline for the releasing of these supplemental funds differs by state and situation, but they depend largely on your state first submitting a mitigation grant plan of action to federal HUD for approval. This can caused a lot of back and forth -- which, in some cases, has led to grant applications not being offered until a year following the flooding event. This is just something of which to be aware.
FEMA & FLOOD INSURANCE
Register with FEMA. Register with FEMA whenever they come around. Word it that the more people who register, the more federal money comes to the state.
Get familiar with your policy. Be sure to familiarize yourself with your flood insurance company and their policies. For instance, some cases are that it is best to wait until after an adjuster has gone through your house before you do any cleaning or removal.
Get friendly with those you'll need to keep in contact with. Try to make a friendly connection with at least one person in each company. As the saying goes, you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar...although I'm not sure why anyone ever wanted those insects anyway.
Be sure to ask for proper identity before given out information. When FEMA inspectors come around, note that they should have their badges displayed at all times. If they do not, ask to see before giving out any sensitive information.
Hire a public adjuster to handle your insurance provider. Although you will be assigned an insurance adjuster per your instance company, some have found it worth it to hire a public adjuster - essentially, a private adjuster. This person will represent you when dealing with the insurance adjuster and typically does a more thorough job in documenting the losses for which you will be compensated, dealing with the insurance adjuster continuously on your behalf until everything is complete. They can typically charge 10%, but can free up the strain of having to deal with that side of the hassle.
Side note for #5, here. One recommendation for public adjuster here has been a company called Janson International, LLC -- who also have offices in South Carolina. Update Oct 13, 2015 (11 am) -- I've had a lot of information come in for the public adjuster tip included above...so much so that it begs to be included below as well:Be on the lookout for fees charged by public adjusters after the storm has cleared. A client (i.e., you) should not pay more than 10% -- while some individuals have been put in contracts up to 23% or higher. More information can be found in this article -- Property Insurance Coverage. If hiring a public adjuster, check your state database to ensure the individual is indeed licensed...both in general and for your state. Also, look closely at when they got their license to make sure they have the required experience. It may also be advised to learn if he/she has recently been hired as an outside consultant.Should you encounter a public adjuster who has essentially been a wolf in sheep's clothing (i.e., not licensed, does not follow up with claims, etc.), take care of this immediately both for your own sake and to save someone else from falling victim as well. This can be done by documenting these encounters/claims in your own personal notes for record as well as writing to your insurance company, insurance agent, state department of licensing, banking and insurance department, attorney general of FEMA, the NFIP, and your state senators.If using a public adjuster to file your primary claim, also have your insurance adjuster file a supplemental claim to catch anything the other may have missed.It should be noted that utilizing this resource will come with upfront costs, and your mortgage lender and insurance will not permit you to pay them with your claims money. Additionally, you may be signing away your rights to manage your own claim.An alternative to this route, of course, is to stick with the adjuster assigned to you by your own insurance company. Additionally, list all your contents yourself (since you know best what you have) and get at least three qualified contractors to provide you with detailed repair estimates. In many cases (and from the sound of it per feedback from several people), this may be one of the best routes to take.
DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT, DOCU-MENT
Take pictures before throwing things out. Take pictures and/or videos of all content and belongings, as well as the structure of the house, before throwing things out -- and this includes clearing closets. Keep track of all contents with photos and a detailed list, even the small stuff. Remember that friend I keep volunteering to be your secretary for the day? Here's where they can come in handy as well.
Keep track of everything. Seriously. Aside from belongings, keep track of everything - phone calls with names and dates, and a description of the conversation. Keep and copy all receipts since you may not know who wants what for months.
Stores files on a flash drive, with a backup as well. It's best to keep a flash drive with all of the information and files. Examples include having a folder for hard copy papers, folder for flood emails, folder for before pictures, etc. Additionally, keep a backup of the flash drive's contents on your computer or a cloud storage system, such as Dropbox.
It's okay to hoard this information. Encouraged, even. Even after this ordeal is over, keep all of this information in case you're affected again and have to show that you really had work done.
RESEARCH ALL ABOUT IT
I've decided to add this section to cover some resources you may find helpful...and for those who may be looking looking for some extra reading/viewing to pass the time. Please note that I don't personally endorse any of the companies listed anywhere in this post, they're just here for reference should you wish to explore them.
Canopy Claims Management - They host quite a few videos on their Youtube channel, CCMResources, that some may find helpful.
With all of that said and done, my thoughts are with everyone back home. May each of you grow in this time of need, and find some way to see the light in the darkness around you. I encourage you to share these tips -- as well as comment below if there are any you wish to include...or any questions you may wish to be passed along to those who were kind enough to provide everything you've read above. (Big thanks to the Houston floodies, by the way.)
Stay safe, East Coast. Much love to you.