Play by Play: Rebuilding After a Natural Disaster

This series gives you a glimpse into what real people experience when dealing with real estate. In our first installment, we heard from Lauren and Andrew*, who were in love with their (potential) second home, but didn't know if it would fit into their budget, or if they would win the bidding war. Do you have a real estate story to share? Email us!

In October 2015, Columbia, S.C. experienced historic and devastating floods after as much as 24 inches of rain fell in some areas, overflowing rivers and creeks and causing nearby dams to fail. Thousands lost their homes in the storm. Although the city pulled together to help with the immediate need, getting people back in their homes would take some time. We spoke with Trevor Jackson*, a Columbia resident who lost his home after a series of earthen dams failed upstream of his house. He shares what he learned about working with FEMA, his insurance company, and contractors to get his family back in their home. 

On having flood insurance

Our house is located in the floodway, which means it's not in the flood zone, but it is in the natural course of the waterway when it floods. We're actually about 4.5 feet above the federally designated flood zone, but flood insurance was still a mandatory part of our mortgage. So, fortunately, we were covered for the structure of the house and things that would convey the value of the home. Those are like the fridge, the cabinets, things that would typically stay with the house when it's sold. What it doesn't cover is any of the contents of the house. You can buy specific insurance riders for that, but we just didn't have that. So things like clothes, the food in our kitchen, our kids' toys were not covered. 

Working with FEMA and insurance

We were on the phone with FEMA the day of the flood right after we got someplace safe.

FEMA told us to also call our homeowners insurance, so we got in line pretty quickly. That was one of the best things we did. Since a lot of people were affected and FEMA only has so much time and money to give people, getting in line quickly meant we could get the abatement and restoration process started pretty quickly.

We were also able to get some money upfront from FEMA. That was to cover immediate expenses like clothing, food, hotel rooms, etc. After that, our FEMA caseworker acted as a middleman between us and the insurance company and he helped us navigate the whole process. He told us to think of the process as a negotiation. So, for example, if the insurance assessment says it costs $4,000 to put in floors and you talk to a contractor who says it costs $5,000 you can go back to the insurance agent and they'll adjust the amount of money if they agree the assessment was wrong. 

Other help for flood victims

In our area, we were also able to apply for Small Business Administration (SBA) loans. They had really low interest--something like 1.5 percent over 20 years, which is cheaper than the rate of inflation--and we were able to use that to cover expenses that weren't covered by insurance. If someone had accrued debt because of the flood like if they were out of work or something and had to use credit cards, they'd be able to use this loan to pay it off. We're going to use it to buy furniture and replace some of our kids' belongings so that our house feels like a home when we move in. 

The abatement process

So, before we could do anything on our home we had to go through the abatement process. That includes drying everything out, removing any potentially harmful things that got under your house--like if a gasoline can washed up under there and spread gas under your house, you'd need to get that cleaned. And then, to be frank, just getting rid of all the sewage.

You have to be really careful with who you hire to do this. There were just so many mercenary and predatory folks during that time. People were using fear tactics and aggressive sales pitches to get people to sign with them and pay half up front, and then they would just disappear.

It happened to some of our elderly neighbors, which is really sad. Someone actually approached us and I'm pretty sure that's what he was trying to do. He gave us his business card and we tried to find his website or anything about him online and there was just nothing. 

When we did find a licensed, bonded, and insured company to do our abatement, we still had to be really careful about the contract and make sure that there was something in there saying if they didn't do it completely right, then they'd have to come back and fix it. It took three days for them to dry everything out, which was actually less time than that process normally takes. It worked out fine for our home, but there were some homes that took three days and should have been dried longer because they ended up getting mold and all sorts of nasty stuff in their home. When our company was finished we had it checked by a 3rd party inspector, which is something I really recommend to anyone in this situation. 

Choosing a contractor

There were some people who chose to be their own general contractor, but we wanted to work with just one person who was able to do it all and help us fast track getting permits and everything we needed to get back in our home. We were given a budget from the insurance company and when we worked with the contractor, the price came in within about $5,000-$6,000 of that estimate, which was pretty good considering. The one thing we wished we had was more of a line item budget that estimated out a range for things like tile, cabinets, etc. That way we could say "we don't need tile that's $15/square foot, let's put some of that money toward the cabinets." I mean, you still want it to be nice because at the end of the day you still have to live there, but having that flexibility would have been nice.

We also had no idea what was even on the list of things we had to decide. Things like what kind of toilet paper holder did we want or what style of soap holder should go in the shower. Just things you never think about and it wasn't as easy as saying "Can we just have what we had before?" Because, no, that's not an option. 

One thing I would recommend to anyone in this position is to just pick the option that's in stock or ships quickly. If we had spent a lot of time picking each of our materials ahead of time or working with a designer, we would have been making our contractor wait. And in the meantime, he'd be working on someone else's home and we'd have to get back in line once we were ready. By being decisive, things just moved along so quickly. We could be back in our home potentially two months earlier than we expected we'd be. 

The time commitment 

This has been an incredibly time-consuming process. It's a full-time job just managing the whole process. I mean, my wife probably spends as much time at the job site or on the phone as she does at her actual job. During the week, we might be working on house-related things until 11:00 at night, and that's after working at our jobs all day. 

Moving home

It's actually starting to look like a house now. We're just waiting on some things like our fridge, some countertops, a few punch list items, but we expect to move in in a week or two.

It'll be nice to be home, but the neighborhood will definitely be different and that will be a little unsettling.

Ours is one of the highest elevated houses--we actually meet the building code for height already. But some of our neighbors will need to raise their houses 10 or 12 feet to meet the code. Our neighborhood was made up of cute little houses from the 50s, but to meet code those people will probably have to tear everything down and go with new construction. We also had a handful of retirees in our neighborhood who didn't have to have flood insurance because they owned their homes outright and didn't have a mortgage. My guess is that those people won't be moving back and it's sad to lose those people as neighbors. 

On the bright side, our kids are now in a place where they're excited to move back. They were pretty traumatized by the whole event, so it's cool to see them starting to think about it like home again. 

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* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy. 
**Photo credit: Jeanette Ortiz-Osorio/American Red Cross