As Hurricane Sandy showed us this week, the widespread devastation wreaked on cities and communities by natural disasters can be significant, costly and debilitating. Homes often suffer severe structural damage caused by wind and flooding, and a lifetime of personal possessions can go missing forever. Hurricane Sandy alone caused the evacuation of more than a million homes in the Northeast and an estimated $10 billion to $20 billion in damages (including $7 billion to $10 billion in insured losses) -- a costly and long cleanup process that for many homeowners looks seemingly insurmountable.
But making it through a hurricane and tackling the cleanup, repair and renovation of one's home in the midst of catastrophe can be achieved, though challenging. Houston homeowner Vanessa Wade survived Hurricane Ike in September 2008, a monstrous storm that claimed 112 lives in the U.S. and caused an estimated $29.6 billion in damage. Wade said that in the case of extreme natural disasters like Ike and Sandy, the pooling of neighborhood resources and an attitude of cooperation among neighbors is vital to a smoother recovery.
Wade admitted that the most difficult part was jump-starting the initial cleanup and recovery efforts -- especially overwhelming due to lack of power and heat, coupled with low morale.
"I was not prepared for an image that's seen in movies: a huge hole in the roof, missing windows and a breaker box ripped from the side of the house. It was overwhelming because you simply don't know where to start the cleanup process," Wade told AOL Real Estate. "But we all worked together and shared tools, food and words of encouragement. Since power was out for more than two weeks, everyone kept watch when others went to work."
Wade's own home was struck by a large tree knocked over by powerful winds (picture at top). The tree fell and damaged Wade's roof. (Another large tree growing in Wade's yard fell and "mangled" her neighbor's vehicle, she said.) Debris and fallen branches littered her front and back yards. Wade, like millions of other people affected by Ike, lost both power and water for weeks. The initial surface cleanup, Wade said, took two weeks.
Fortunately, Wade added, she had stocked up generously on essentials such as water, flashlights, canned goods, a portable battery-operated black-and-white television (to monitor weather) and batteries prior to the hurricane. Wade also pre-emptively prepared a list of trusted contractors that she knew would perform high-quality damage repair and renovations at non-inflated rates.
"So many people were ripped off by those looking to profit from vulnerable homeowners and renters," Wade said. "Check to make sure [contractors] are licensed and can perform the work, without causing more damage or changing the price. "
Disaster recovery specialist Paul Purcell, author of "Disaster Prep 101," added that in many post-disaster situations such as Ike and Sandy, immediate protection from the elements is the biggest concern for many homeowners who have had their roofs punctured, windows and doors blown out, or are suffering from power outages.
"Late-season hurricanes mean folks are without power, sometimes even windows, roofs, walls, doors or insulation," Purcell told AOL Real Estate. "Keep what doors and windows you have closed, and seal seams with plastic sheets -- think shower curtains -- and any kind of tape you have. Simply cutting down on wind works wonders with keeping warm."
Purcell adds that the most important consideration for homeowners currently stuck in a post-disaster environment, aside from shelter and protection from harsh elements, is maintaining morale. Keeping a community-wide focus on rebuilding -- rather than mourning what was lost -- can be the most challenging but integral part of a successful disaster recovery process.
"A few keys: Stay fed and hydrated and take regular work breaks, take vitamins if you have them, and look at 'devastation' as a clean slate and opportunity to build something you'll enjoy even more," Purcell advised. "Remember, the worst is behind you."
How Homeowners Can Better Protect Themselves
In Wade's case, as with many of the claims brought on by Sandy and Ike, insurance covered very little of the damage to her home. Though most policies cover wind damage (a tree falling on your home, for example), standard homeowner policies often don't cover damage from flooding.
The only way a homeowner would have comprehensive coverage for flood-related damage is to have a separate flood insurance policy. In the United States, this is rare: Only 13 percent of homeowners nationwide have flood insurance plans, down from 14 percent last year. Yet annual premiums for flood insurance on a one-story home average about $400 to $450 nationwide and can save hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs. (The National Flood Insurance Program and some private insurers provide coverage for up to $250,000 of structural damage to a home and $100,000 for personal possessions). Flood insurance is a must for homeowners in flood-prone or low-lying coastal areas.
Purcell also advised homeowners to take a proper inventory of their home and possessions. The Insurance Information Institute offers a free home inventory app that allows homeowners to download information about where possessions were bought and how much they cost. All the information is stored remotely and can be accessible even if computers or personal devices are destroyed. Keeping digital records of receipts can also save money and lessen costs in the long run, according to Purcell.
"Half of surviving a sizable disaster is setting yourself up to rebuild," Purcell told AOL Real Estate. "Use your phone's camera and video to document property loss and damage. Insurance companies, after a regional catastrophe, will be more concerned with their bottom line than yours, so work now to get all the info you can to help process your claims later."