There’s little that feels natural after a natural disaster. Your life can be upended and your home severely damaged, even if you’ve done everything you can to prepare. In the wake of the emergency it can be hard to figure out the next steps.
These ten tips will help you stay safe, save money, and build back your home even better than it was before -- whether you’re dealing with fire restoration in Northern California or water clean-up in Louisiana.
Before we dive into the details, here’s a quick summary. Read on, or click on a link to jump to that section.
10 tips for cleaning and remodeling your home after a disaster:
- Protect yourself
- Document everything
- Make a checklist
- Do work that can’t be delayed
- Educate yourself and ask for help
- Hire contractors you can trust
- Protect your belongings
- Be prepared to haggle with insurance
- Rebuild and restore better
- Take care of yourself
1. Protect yourself
Your home is your sanctuary. It holds countless cherished memories and all of your prized belongings, and it’s probably your biggest asset. Now a disaster has come and messed it up. Understandably, you’re ready to jump into action.
But before you run inside your damaged house, be sure you remember the cardinal rule of disaster rebuilding: people are more important than property. Your remodeling project will be a lot more challenging if you’re lying in a hospital bed!
Here are some simple, common-sense guidelines that you should use as you approach rebuilding and remodeling your home after a disaster. Many of these are provided by experts from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).1
Safety tips for disaster cleanup:
- Don’t enter a damaged structure until it has been inspected by a professional and deemed safe.
- Wait until daylight to re-enter a structure and survey damage.
- If you suspect there’s a gas leak, leave your home immediately and contact emergency authorities. Don’t turn on the lights or anything else that could cause a spark!
- Wear personal protective equipment when you enter damaged structures, including NIOSH-approved respirators, hard hats, rubber gloves, goggles, and waterproof/steel toed boots.
- Use teams of people for lifting heavy objects and debri.
- Use extreme caution when operating a chainsaw to clear downed trees.
- Prepare for weather: rain, snow, ice, and heat. Stay hydrated as you clean up and rebuild.
- Take your time when pumping/mucking out water and wet debri. Then dry the home as quickly as possible to prevent mold.
- Assume that any home built before 1978 has lead-based paint!
- Minimize dust and toxic chemicals that may be present by using drop cloths, debri bags, and HEPA vacuums.
Okay, now that you’ve got your hard hat on, it’s time to go inside and take stock of the damage, which brings us to tip #2.
2. Document everything
It’s time to get out your camera (or camera phone) and snap away. These photos aren’t for Instagram. They’re for something far more important: your insurance company, federal aid, and your own records.
Here are the things you’ll want to make sure you document with photos, videos, and other evidence after a natural disaster has damaged your property:
- Serial numbers: Be sure you’ve got the serial numbers of any pricey new appliances, fancy electronics, or other damaged items in your home.
- Damaged walls, floors, roofing, etc.: It’s better to take more photos than you think you’ll need than to take less. Snap away at every corner of your home.
- Material samples: If your insulation got moldy, pop some of it in a plastic bag. If your flooring got water damaged, do the same. These samples may come in handy when you’re haggling with insurance over the extent of the damage.
- Keep receipts: Hold on to any receipts you get for work done on your home, materials purchased, or anything else related to your disaster remodeling -- including making a last-minute move to temporary housing.
Even if you don’t end up using the photos and evidence to get paid by your insurance company, these can help when working with contractors. Plus, you’ll be able to do before-and-after comparison.
3. Make a checklist
Now that you’ve documented the damage, it’s time to make a plan for cleaning, restoring, and remodeling. The first step in this process is making a checklist.
Your checklist should include everything, from that small dent in the wall to that huge hole in your roof. No damage is too small — or too big — for your list. Having a complete tally of the projects will help you immensely down the line.
Once your checklist is complete, you can start to prioritize your repairs, beginning with the stuff that just can’t wait.
4. Do work that can’t be delayed
Installing your new stove will be pretty difficult if your kitchen is like a swimming pool. So, you’ll want to start with the basics.
Here are the tasks you should take care of ASAP after a natural disaster strikes, especially if you’re dealing with a basement flood clean-up or any other other water damage restoration:
- Water clean-up: This is pretty much always step one if your natural disaster involved flooding of any kind. Towels and mops may do the trick for small floods, but bigger flood restoration often requires wet-dry shop vacs and sump pumps.
- Mold prevention: Get out the sledgehammer -- it’s time to take down some walls. Any wall that got flooded should be opened up to prevent mold, even if the outside appears undamaged. Also be sure to check floorboards, cabinets, and other structural elements that got wet.
- Remove furnishings and carpets: If your sofa got soaked, you’re going to want to remove it from your house before it turns into a petri dish of toxic mold. Same goes for your carpet and other furniture that got soaked. You may be able to properly dry it later, but for now just get it out of the house.
There are other projects that might need immediate attention but that you can’t do yourself, like roof replacement. That’s when you need to find professional help.
5. Educate yourself and find help when you need it
Maybe you’ve done a few DIY projects around the house before — like staining your deck or painting your bedroom. But remodeling and restoring homes after a disaster is on a whole different level. There are a few things you can do to make sure you don’t get in over your head.
First of all: educate yourself. There are tons of experts and restoration companies out there who will teach you how to fix up your home by yourself. Seriously, just go to Youtube and type in your project. You can also peruse government websites, like HUD.gov.
In fact, here’s a really helpful video from HUD to get you started on your educational journey.
The second thing you need to do to avoid getting in over your head is this: know when to ask for help. Paying a few hundred bucks to a professional is a lot better than paying a few thousand bucks to fix a project gone wrong.
There are some things, like messing around with electricity, that should always be left to the pros.
6. Hire contractors you can trust
Speaking of hired help: some professionals are. . . well. . . less professional than others. The last thing you need is a contractor who runs off on you halfway through the project. Or, worse, a swindler who chases storms and tries to rip off desperate homeowners.
You can follow our step-by-step guide to hiring a reliable restoration company or contractor after going through a natural disaster. A few simple steps can save you a ton of money, time, and heartache.
7. Protect your belongings
Our homes protect us from our environment, whether it’s a snowstorm or an unwelcome stranger. They also protect all of our precious things, from our widescreen televisions to our family photo albums.
But when your house is wrecked, it’s not going to be so good at protecting your stuff. Luckily, you can put it all in storage while you clean up and renovate.
You can keep all of your valuables safe by schlepping them to a storage unit or, better yet, getting a portable storage container delivered right to your house. It’s easy -- and a lot cheaper than replacing everything you own.
There are plenty of storage container options, whether you need enough space to store all of your furniture while you remodel the whole house, or just for your most valuable items.
Sometimes items just can't be saved. If you need to dispose of a lot of materials, consider dumpster rental services like Bin There Dump That, which offer fast delivery in a range of sizes and will haul it away when you’re ready.
8. Be prepared to haggle with insurance
Unfortunately, insurance companies don’t always accept your entire claim outright. Be ready for a little fight.
The first step in getting money from your insurance provider is to actually have insurance. If you don’t have homeowner’s insurance, or your plan doesn’t cover the kind of natural disaster you experienced (most insurance policies don’t automatically cover water damage from floods, for instance) then you may need to seek government assistance through FEMA.
Assuming you have an insurance policy, you’ll want to follow these steps in putting together your claim.
- Report your claim as quickly as you can.
- Keep all of your receipts and other documents, including receipts for lodging if you’re displaced. Document all the damage (see #2 above for more info).
- Be sure the insurance company adjuster who comes to survey the damage is certified to make claim decisions. If they work for an independent company, they may not be authorized.
- Keep track of what the adjuster says, or doesn’t say, during the survey. Write it down to make sure that it matches your settlement.
- Use legitimate contractors for your repairs (read #6 above for tips). You do not have to use the contractors your insurance recommends.
- If you’re not satisfied with your settlement, file an appeal with your insurer. If your appeal isn’t granted, you can hire an attorney or complain to your state’s insurance regulator.
9. Rebuild and restore better
Have you ever just wanted to start over with a clean slate? Well, a natural disaster may not be exactly what you imagined, but it’s still an opportunity. Why rebuild the same boring basement when you can create your dream den?
Maybe now is the time to consider a home improvement loan to redo your kitchen with granite counters and stainless steel appliances. Whatever project you’ve been holding off on, you likely won’t find a better time to complete it.
But it’s not just aesthetic renovations that matter. Adding improvements like basement drains and outside grading after a flood can protect your home in future disasters. You can also toughen up your walls and install a more durable roof if you’re in wind/hurricane/tornado-prone areas.
10. Take care of yourself
We’ve saved the most important tip for last: be safe, slow down, and remember what matters most. Restoring homes after water damage, hail damage, wind damage, or some other natural disaster is tough work, but the toll isn’t just on your body.
Living through a natural disaster is harrowing and it can leave a lasting impression on you and your family. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identifies the following symptoms of mental distress after an emergency:2
- Emotional symptoms such as irritability or excessive sadness.
- Cognitive dysfunction such as difficulty making decisions or following directions.
- Physical symptoms such as headache, stomach pain, or difficulty breathing.
- Behavioral reactions such as consuming more alcohol or interpersonal conflict.
- Failure to adhere to needed physical or medication needs.
If you’re experiencing these symptoms after a natural disaster, take a break and seek help from a mental health professional or your doctor. Remember, throwing yourself into hard, physical labor isn’t always the best way to heal.
Dealing with the chaos and damage of a natural disaster is one of the most difficult experiences you’ll ever face. We can’t imagine what you’re going through, But we do hope that these 10 tips can help you have a safer, faster, and better recovery.
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Rebuild Healthy Homes”
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Disaster Behavioral Health”
(Credit for the photo featured at top: Home Renovations Of Texas via Facebook)
Easton Smith works as a freelance writer and researcher, reviewing technology trends and the moving industry. He moved all around the continent, from New York to California, before landing back in his hometown of Salt Lake City.
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