We've all seen the pictures, but they pale when compared to standing in the front yard of a home ravaged by the winds and waters of Hurricane Katrina and smelling the now-aging decay of rubble that once was treasured baby pictures, a wedding gown, heirlooms handed down from a great-grandmother or a refrigerator that had been stocked for the kids' first week of school.
It's easy to be so overwhelmed by such intense destruction -- the Insurance Information Institute's preliminary estimates of direct losses from Katrina are $34.4 billion -- that bringing a home back to its pre-storm condition seems impossible. It can be done, however, if you know how to work through the system of insurance, demolition, permits and construction contractors. Here are some tips to help you on your way to recovery.
The first thing to remember is that life in southeast Louisiana has changed. Every step of the recovery process is likely to take longer because of a shortage of workers and cost more than it would have before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Just as lines in stores are slower because of fewer cashiers, the wait time also will be longer for services provided by professions that are understaffed and in demand, such as insurance adjusters, roofers, construction crews, fence builders and others.
"Homeowners are going to have to be patient during these times," says Phil Hoffman, who finished his term as president of Home Builders Association of Greater New Orleans last month. He owns Hoffman Custom Built Homes of LaPlace "Contractors are going to work as hard as they can, but somebody may not be able to get to them (individual homeowners) for a few months." Although the market before Katrina was often driven by getting several estimates and selecting the least expensive with the shortest timeline, Hoffman says this situation also has changed. "Pricing may not be the thing that makes the decision (about which contractor to choose)," he says. "You may not be able to shop around. You may have to take the most available contractor who is reputable. Make sure you get references."
Louisiana Insurance Commissioner J. Robert Wooley, however, recommends that you seek three estimates before you sign a contract for any type of work. He also advises homeowners not to do business with a contractor who can't show proof of insurance or one who isn't bonded. The latter protects you if you're not happy with the finished product or if the contractor hasn't paid for the supplies he has used to repair your home. Wooley agrees with Hoffman that homeowners should require at least two references from the contractor, that you have conversations with those references and that you check the contractor's reputation through the Better Business Bureau to learn whether they have had complaints filed against them and how those cases were resolved.
Before you even get to the point of signing a construction contract, however, you must find out how much money you will receive from your insurance company and arrange any additional financing necessary to repair your home. Depending on the type of damage your house suffers, you may have to deal with two insurance adjusters -- one from your homeowner's insurance carrier and another who deals with flood insurance policies.
"It is extremely important to know the type of insurance you have and what your policy covers," Wooley says. "Homeowner's and renter's policies do not cover flooding. That is covered by a different policy through the National Flood Insurance Program."
For complaints about service from your insurance adjuster or problems with the payment of claims, contact Wooley's office at (800) 259-5300 or (225) 342-0895. For general information about insurance in Louisiana or to view frequently asked questions, log onto www.ldi.la.gov. There also is a wealth of information about insurance, Katrina and other disasters on the Hurricane Insurance Information Center Web site at www.disasterinformation.org.
Wooley and other officials say that if you are unhappy with the insurance estimate, you can request a different adjuster, similar to seeking a second opinion about a medical condition. Requesting a second adjuster could increase the wait time in receiving your settlement check, but it could be advantageous in the end.
Then comes the process of finding contractors to perform the needed repairs. Hoffman advises homeowners to seek contractors recommended by friends and family who know their work is satisfactory as one way of cutting through the confusion. This may also save time in finding a contractor who is available.
"This rebuilding effort is going to take a lot of contractors and we really don't have enough for the effort," Hoffman says. "There are people who will come in from out of town to seize the work, and we need that because there aren't enough of us." Be sure to check insurance, licenses and references of workers who come from elsewhere as disasters, unfortunately, can attract an unethical element that may take advantage of people desperate to bring their homes back to a livable state.
"Get an estimate in writing and get a contract," Hoffman stresses. "If the contractor is legitimate, he will have a Louisiana license ... and will have worker's compensation and general liability insurance." Because renovations and repairs could take more than half a year, it is important that you feel comfortable with the contractor and that the estimate is realistic.
"You're not going to be able to look at the cheapest price (necessarily)," he says. "If you look at the cheapest price, you're going to be in a bind somewhere. Everything is more expensive now."
One Metairie resident chose to forego all the time constraints and uncertainty of waiting for her insurance check, then hiring a contractor she didn't know, waiting until that business' crews were available to work on her house and trying to make sure all her instructions for renovation were followed.
Like many of Katrina's victims, Olga Fox is meeting the challenge of rebuilding her home of 42 years by putting personal initiative to work while she waits for help from her insurance company. Forced to wade through a series of adjusters, some of whom never kept appointments or saw (much less inspected) the house, Fox used the time for necessary demolition and purchased her own trailer so she could live "at home" during the renovation process.
A foot of floodwater destroyed her ranch house's wood floors, carpeting, cabinets, appliances and furniture as well as some of Fox's clothing and personal effects. Soon after Katrina, her son David, whose engine-rebuilding business in New Orleans was devastated by floodwaters, began the task of removing the standing water and some of the house's saturated contents.
"The first step, and most important, is the gutting of the house and the removal of water-logged materials," says Olga's youngest son Andrew, who's gone into his previous sideline of carpentry and construction full time since the storm. "The longer you wait, the higher the damage goes. Mold can get all the way into the attic if it's not gutted soon enough."
Once Jefferson Parish residents were allowed back into their neighborhoods and homes, several resourceful friends, who'd made their living as X-ray technicians pre-Katrina, took over, cutting out wet sheetrock and pulling up floors. In the meantime, Olga, who evacuated to Cottonport, La., with her eldest son, John, and then to Baton Rouge, bought a 26-foot trailer, parked it in her driveway and lived in it for a month until FEMA delivered one to her in mid-November.
"I owned my home, I had power and a sewer hookup because I had my own camper before," says Olga. "That expedited things [for the FEMA trailer]. The site was ready."
Many of her neighbors also have received FEMA trailers recently, one form of government help that for many people has made waiting to rebuild a little more bearable. "Actually, it's quite pleasant living in the trailer," says Olga. "It's new and it's not that confining and I'm very active, so I don't spend that much time in it. I feel very safe."
Her dealings with insurance delays, on the other hand, have been less positive. "I'm at the point now where I'm just exhausted," she says. "Nobody did their job. Everyone kept passing it on to another adjuster, who hadn't seen the property." With insurance money finally on the way, Andrew plans to begin renovating the house full time in the next few months, and the fact that Olga used her time wisely in the interim means that the project may be completed that much sooner. "She decided to help herself," Andrew says of his resilient mom. "And then, fortunately, help did come along."
Hoffman says a good contractor can help ease the problems between the insurance adjuster's estimates and the reality of what repairs will cost. "Some of the insurance companies are not giving enough for the damage, and I (as a contractor) deal directly with the insurance companies," he says. "I explain to them my estimate and why it is more than they are offering. The adjuster may see that he missed something or didn't give accurate pricing for it."
Once the insurance claim is in order, contractors should repair any roof damage to make sure the inside of the house will stay dry, then crews should work on plumbing and electrical systems, get those inspected and approved, and move on to insulation, sheetrock, painting and trim work before moving on to the outside of the house. All this could easily take seven months or more, Hoffman says.
Another problem many homeowners may encounter, especially if their homes were flooded, is determining whether the structures are environmentally safe or need mold remediation before repairs are made. Wendy E. Sill of Cierra Environmental (429 Wall Blvd., Suite 1A, Gretna, 342-4145 or 866-642-MOLD; www.cierraenvironmental.com) says that just as with a contractor, homeowners should make sure their mold assessment and remediation contractor is reputable, licensed and can give references of past customers who can attest to their quality of work.
In general, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends that you consult a professional if mold contamination in your home exceeds a 10-square-foot patch. Sill points out that state laws require that assessments and remediation be performed by different companies, even if one company offers all the services, which can help protect the consumer from tainted assessments.
"A good rule of thumb," Sill says, is "if you can see mold or smell it, then 99 percent of the time you need to call a professional. This doesn't mean there is always a huge problem, but it's best to find out before it turns into a very costly situation."
If you determine you want the help of a mold expert, Sill says, "The first person to call would be an environmental company who can educate you on mold and your indoor air quality, make an assessment of the condition of your home or building, offer testing before remediation begins, provide a written 'scope of work' to be performed by a third-party remediation company and arrange post-remediation testing when all the work has been completed. The second person to call is a mold remediation company who will perform all work as directed by the environmental company who wrote the 'scope of work.' There should always, always be a contract in place that defines all terms and (is) agreed upon by both parties."
If your house has received structural damage or if you plan to remodel by moving walls or tearing out support structures, you should hire an architect to ensure the work is done properly. "If they are just bringing (the house) back to where it was, we can do that," Hoffman says of contractors. A good contractor will handle the permits, meet the city inspectors and take care of other time-consuming technical aspects of the work. "They (homeowners) just have to write the check and pick out the stuff to put back in their house," Hoffman says.
Local professionals recommend that homeowners who need repairs of any kind start looking for contractors now, even if they haven't received their final insurance check, so they can get on a work schedule. "Once the insurance money hits," Hoffman says, "there's going to be a real glut of work and it is going to back us up in a big way. Some people may not even get their houses started for six to eight months."
- David Richmond
The new reality
Olga Fox is staying in a FEMA trailer in her driveway so she can live on site while her son repairs storm damage to her Metairie home.
- David Richmond
Since Hurricane Katrina, Andrew Fox has turned his sideline of construction and carpentry into a full-time business, A & B Renovations.
- David Richmond
Metairie resident Olga Fox, a retired mother of three sons, looked to family, friends and her own initiative while waiting for her homeowner's insurance to help pay for the rebuilding of her flooded home. Her son, Andrew, is now renovating the house.