As the owner of a house that has now flooded three times, I’ve learned a lot about the flood recovery process and want to share it with the Rice community. As I told a news reporter two years ago, “The recovery is worse than the event itself.”
For those who have unexpectedly flooded, realize that you have just been through trauma. You may have lost things that meant a lot to you. This is not the time to make major decisions. Take it one day at a time and do not overstress. The immediate task at hand is to save your house from mold and to potentially save your possessions. Full mold remediation is a bit of work, but one thing you can do immediately is set your air conditioning as low as possible. This will slow down mold growth.
If you have flood insurance, file a claim with your agent. It is important to also register with FEMA (disasterassistance.gov). FEMA can help with temporary rental assistance, reimburse you for the purchase of a dehumidifier and potentially meet other needs. If you did not have flood insurance, it is essential that you register with FEMA. Since this is a federal disaster, they will provide up to $32,000 to assist you with recovery. Those without insurance will also be able to get assistance from local charities and the American Red Cross.
Next, your insurance company will send an adjustor to your house. Flood insurance covers your structure with the option to purchase contents insurance. If you were like me and did not purchase contents, do not despair — you can claim it as a loss on your tax return.
Regarding the structure, the adjustor is going to give you a long list of necessary repairs and ask you to sign a proof of loss (POL). If you do not know about construction, you probably won’t know if this POL is correct. You have at least 60 days to file your POL, but FEMA often gives extensions. Do not yield to pressure from your adjustor to sign the POL right away. I think they have an incentive to get you to sign quickly. Try to get an estimate from a contractor for repairs, but it is not necessary to show a contractor your POL. This can get dicey too since most contractors don’t want to give a detailed estimate if you don’t hire them. If possible, the best case is to utilize someone who you know and trust.
If your damage is severe or house is large, you may wish to hire a private or public adjustor who will generally work for 10% of “new money.” Get the estimate from your insurance adjustor first before hiring a private adjustor. Some people like to hire an adjustor for contents just because it’s a pain to catalog and estimate the value of everything — and everything little thing adds up. If your house is especially complicated, or if you feel you are not being treated fairly by your adjustor/company, you may wish to hire a lawyer who specializes in insurance claims.
Cleanup, Mold and Remediation
This is the first thing that needs to be done to your house. Things and areas that are wet provide the perfect breeding ground for mold growth, especially in our warm Houston climate. It is important to get all your wet items — especially carpets, mattresses, sofas and rugs — out of your house as soon as possible. Do not throw anything away before your adjustor sees it, and take photographs for your records.
A lot of people are going to come knocking on your door. After the 2015 Memorial Day flood, I had people drive up in a nice car who said they were from California but just opened an office in Houston. They asked me why I was taking out my drywall myself if I had insurance. They said I should just sign a piece of paper and they would “take care of everything.” I knew not to trust them. My neighbor hired a company called Servpro that came from out of town and charged him $25,000 for cleanup and remediation. This is more than FEMA allows. Do not pay anyone until you know what your insurance company is going to cover! At the same time, some good-hearted volunteers will likely be in the area to help with the “muck out.” Given the size of this catastrophe, it’s hard say when they might get to your house, and time is important in preventing mold growth.
Another important issue to consider is how dirty the floodwater was. After the Memorial Day flood, the sewage plant backed up — it was nasty water. After the Tax Day flood, this did not happen and water was only in the house for a few hours. Your adjustor should always pay for drywall removal due to the danger of mold growth. But I know one case where someone’s adjustor gave her the option to simply dry out the drywall after the Tax Day flood. I am not sure of the method, but this did save money. I assume they poked holes and sprayed fungicide behind the drywall. How dirty your water was can also affect whether you try to save things like rugs. One contractor told me to drill holes in bathroom cabinets and spray behind them. He also told me not to remove drywall from tight door corners — I later found mold growing there. Be wary of the contractors who may want to outbid the others by lowballing.
A contractor is going to charge to remove the drywall and insulation. I was lucky to have a lot of friends come over — or send their kids — after the flood to help with carpet, furniture and even drywall removal. Most of the remediation you can do yourself — it’s not hard. If you are not sure what you want to do with your house in the future, consider doing the work yourself. For example, if you decide to demolish and sell the land or use the insurance to build new, there is no need to pay for remediation.
The first task is to remove your baseboards, cut drywall and remove insulation. Your baseboards will come up with a wrecking bar that you can buy at Lowe’s or Home Depot. You can cut the drywall with a utility knife. If you use an automatic tool like a Dremel, be careful not to cut the studs. Before you cut your drywall or allow anyone else to cut it, check with your insurance adjustor to verify the height. The general rule of thumb is to cut 1 foot above your waterline. If you only had a few inches of water, ask the adjuster what they will pay for. Remember that drywall comes in 4-foot sheets and it costs money to cut it, so usually people will replace the full panel — but that could mean a bigger paint job later.
One issue with drywall is that you do not have to cut it perfectly at first. You can simply hit it with a hammer between studs and it will break, especially if you are cutting to 4 feet. But if you are a perfectionist, use a chalk line or a level. I’ve been gradually brining my drywall to a perfect 4 feet throughout the house over the past two years while waiting for my house to be elevated. It is recommended that you wear a mask — you don’t want to breathe mold dust.
Once the drywall is out, you will want to prevent the mold growth. The lowball contractor told me to bleach the place and close the windows for the weekend. Ten percent bleach is recommended, but I used at least 20 percent. When my house flooded during the Memorial Day flood, I poured 100% bleach on various floor locations. After this initial mop, I made gallon jugs of about 20 percent bleach and aimed these at the studs, then mopped up what splashed on the floor again. I left the house and let the dehumidifiers run. I did the same thing immediately after the Tax Day flood. When the FEMA inspector came, it was so clean that she was skeptical the house had even flooded.
If you don’t like bleach, there are products like OdoBan and Concrobium Mold Control that you can buy at Lowe’s. Concrobium is expensive (more than $30 a gallon compared to $4 a gallon for bleach), but claims to kill mold spores as well. OdoBan leaves a nice smell. If you really want to go all out, you can get a very strong product called Microban ($45 a gallon at Grainger).
Drying is important as well. Mold likes humid air. As soon as you can get in the house, I recommend setting up a dehumidifier or two depending on the size of the space. You can buy a dehumidifier at Lowe’s or Home Depot for a few hundred dollars — cheaper than the contractor is going to charge you. You can also rent industrial-strength dehumidifiers, which will dry the house out quicker. I recommend a model that allows a hose attachment so you can run it continuously — you don’t want to keep emptying the water collection bin. You also want to place a lot of flat box fans around and point them at the wet areas. If you have ceiling fans, turn them on and maybe put the dehumidifier underneath. Remember, the idea is to circulate dry air. You can buy a moisture meter to know when to stop. I think I kept drying my house for a few weeks after the Memorial Day flood.
Once you’ve done all this, relax. You’ve gotten ahead of the battle with mold. Now you can think of what to do next.
Notes on Substantial Damage and Home Elevation
Those of you who took in several feet of water may need to worry about this. According to FEMA regulations, if the cost to repair your house is greater than 50% of the value of the structure, you will be declared “substantially damaged” by the city. After the Memorial Day flood, the city sent out a lot of substantial damage letters. This means you cannot repair your house until you get a flood permit from the city. If you get one of these, you have three options: appeal, demolish or elevate it 1 foot above the base flood elevation (BFE), which usually means 3–6 feet in our area. The issue with elevation is that it is very expensive for slab-on-grade houses, and you might not recoup this investment. In addition, many experts are recommending that you raise your house at least 2 feet above the BFE. It’s important to remember that the boundary of the floodplain and the BFE are not absolutes, but are instead based on models that are not 100 percent accurate — and some say politics also play a role.
If the house is declared substantially damaged, you can appeal. You may need to hire an appraiser to estimate the value of your structure and carefully plan the repair costs to get under the 50% rule. But here is something to consider: FEMA is in the process of raising the cost of flood insurance. Up to now, those of us in the 100-year floodplain do not pay the actuarial rate. As a result of recent laws, this is changing and the NIFP is up for renewal. Also consider that your house might be declared a severe repetitive loss (SRL), meaning there has been damage from two or more floods in 10 years that add to more than the value of its structure, or four flood claims (structure and contents) in the history of the house. A person in my neighborhood got declared SRL and her insurance went from $2,000 to $7,000! This is an example of a social policy that is good for society — we all pay when people rebuild in areas that flood a lot — but it’s terrible if you are the homeowner. Some of you may be finding out that you bought a house with flood history even though the person you bought it from did not disclose it; #neverflooded can be fake news.
Consider this: The city is able to apply for grants from FEMA to pay for the elevation of your property. This is called the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. For properties that keep flooding, the idea is that it is cost-effective for the government to pay for elevation. However, these grants are not quick — I have been waiting two years since first applying. But if you have serious damage, and your house has flooded once and is at a low elevation, it might be worth applying for these grants. Watch for announcements on houstonrecovers.org.
The water that entered your house is floodwater from the bayou. Hopefully it did not contain sewage backup. Either way, it probably has a lot of microorganisms. If you can, you want to clean anything that these waters came in contact with.
A general rule is that you need to consider throwing out anything porous. This includes couches, cardboard, particle board, pillows, books, stuffed animals, plush toys and so on. Some say you can save these items if you wash them early enough in Pine-Sol.
On the other hand, things that are nonporous can be cleaned. These are things with hard surfaces.
Dishes and Pots. Soak in at least 10 percent bleach if it will not harm the surface, or use a gentler disinfectant like OdoBan. Use hot water.
Clothes. A common question is whether you can clean clothes that came into contact with floodwater. My opinion is there is no reason not to try, especially if your water was not too dirty. My method was to soak Colors in Clorox 2 and wash twice, Whites in regular bleach. Others wash clothes in Lysol or Pine-Sol, or use lemon oil to get rid of odors.
Photos, Paper and Artwork. This is going to be harder. I never had time to try any of these methods, so I lost most of these items. You can try laying them out to dry, but be sure to separate each piece. Photos can be washed in distilled water. One trick is to place photos in the freezer to stop the damage, and clean them later or send to a professional. Artwork will dry but it will smell — some people recommend spraying them with essential oils like lemon.
Repairing your house will also have its challenges. I’m told the project management triangle applies to home repair — “Good, fast or cheap: pick two.” If you are on a budget, you can be your own general contractor and hire individuals to do the necessary repairs (drywall, electrical, plumbing, painting, etc.). This will save you at least 20 percent. If you have a mortgage, you will have to deal with your bank on how the funds are released and may have to negotiate with them if you are managing the repairs yourself. Some people recommend having a mold inspection and getting a “mold-free” certificate, especially if you plan to sell the house. Technically it’s only good for the day of inspection, and no house in Houston is 100% mold-free.
Last but not least, an important resource for me was the following Facebook group: Houston Flood 2015 & Beyond: Support & Resource Group. Before Hurricane Harvey, it had around 4,000 members. It now has about 8,000. You can post a question and a lot of helpful people will provide answers. The files section has a lot of helpful resources like a personal property inventory form, disinfecting instructions, tips about getting permits and so on.
Good luck, and remember to take it one day at a time. When I went into my house two days after Harvey flooded it, I was thinking I should just demolish it. A few days later, when the sun came out and the house began to dry, my thoughts drifted to what I decided after the past two floods: I can save this house — you can too.
After Robert Raphael, associate professor of bioengineering, bought his house on South Braeswood Boulevard in 2010, someone asked if he was worried about flooding. He responded, “This is my act of defiance against Mother Nature for flooding my hometown of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina — buy right on a body of water and say, ‘Bring it on.’” Well, Mother Nature did — three times. His house is scheduled to be elevated above the floodplain in early 2018. He is looking forward to the day when he will look out on the Brays Bayou and say, “You did not defeat me.”