I slept through Hurricane Fran in September of 1996. Because the North Carolina Piedmont is 150 miles inland, I assumed there was nothing to worry about. As daylight came and I got up to see that pine trees were still swaying, the phone rang. It was one of my favorite customers, for whom I had done a couple of remodeling jobs: "Bill, I've got a tree through my bedroom, bath, and closet." At that moment, I had no idea that the entire city, the entire region, was waking up to a major disaster. I threw a 100-foot roll of 6-mil plastic along with some 16-foot 2x4s into the back of the truck, and my son and I started out on what should have been a ten-minute drive across town. It took half an hour of backtracking around streets blocked by trees, utility poles snapped and leaning, and downed power lines lying curled on the road. I could not get into the drive of the home, since two or three trees were lying across it. But within an hour, I had plastic tacked down over an enormous poplar tree and a gaping hole in the roof (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Felled by a September hurricane that veered inland, this mature poplar tree was an unwelcome house guest (right). The first order of business was to cover the gaping hole — and the tree within — with 6-mil plastic to keep out the rain (below).
A Time for Cooperation
Over the next six months, I performed major repair work on more than one area home. In the process, I learned a lot about estimating storm damage and working with insurance companies. Tree removal crews drove several hundred miles to assist in getting trees off houses, and insurance adjusters were flown in from as far away as Texas. From the beginning, I felt that local builders and home remodelers in the area had some obligation to try to meet the community's need for timely repairs. I was surprised to find that some builders felt differently. They refused to bid on the work, preferring to continue building the new homes that were on their schedule. As a result, some homeowners waited many months to get their repairs completed. My experience suggests that this kind of work is both rewarding and profitable — and that should be true of other kinds of disasters as well, such as floods and fires. You can usually count on money being available for the job, since most homes are insured. The insurance people I worked with were intelligent and experienced and ready to pay a fair price for the work, but they also seemed to have a good sense of when a bid was getting out of line. A disaster is a potential lure for "gougers," but I didn't see a lot of that in this
Reassuring the Owner and Negotiating the Fee
The first thing the owner needed was some reassurance that his home could be fixed. Sometimes I overlook that need because I see the situation in simple terms based on 20 years' experience in remodeling: "If it's broken, it can be fixed." Since I'd never dealt with a hurricane before, I had little or no experience estimating for storm repair. I learned a few things. For instance, in dealing with the insurance adjuster, homeowners have considerable leverage in choosing who does the repair. They don't necessarily have to take the lowest bid, and they can argue that a home of higher than average quality deserves equally-high-quality repair work. At the same time, there's nothing the insurance adjusters haven't seen or heard in terms of damage and bids on repair; I don't envy their job. The fellow on this job knew hurricanes. He had spent months assessing the damage to homes in Florida from Hurricane Andrew. Since I already had a good working relationship with this homeowner, he wanted me to do the work and did not want to get competitive bids. The insurance adjuster went along with that request. I would normally do such work on a time-and-materials basis, but the insurance company, of course, wanted a figure. Being a little intimidated by the unknown, I overestimated the job. The insurance adjuster knew that but was very considerate in his negotiations. He finally submitted his best offer, which was less than my bid but turned out to be adequate for the job.
With a crew of three, we started a daily routine of rolling back the tarp to expose the hole in the house, surgically cutting out each damaged piece, and looking for hidden damage along the way. I bought a new Porter-Cable Tiger Saw, which has a convenient quick release for the blade — a handy feature, given the number of blades we went through. For a number of days, the hole in the roof got bigger and bigger as we continued to cut back to find a secure starting point from which to begin rebuilding. The master bedroom had been vacated for the duration and became the tool storage room. We covered the oak floor to protect it, even though we knew it would have to be refinished because of water damage at one end. Oddly enough, the textured bedroom ceiling was completely intact and did not need repair. To keep it that way, we braced it with a temporary wall in order to work on the adjoining exterior wall (Figure 2). The closet doors and bath door were removed, jamb and all. The bath ceiling was completely replaced because the ceiling joists had been split, and the entire closet area, interior and exterior, was rebuilt. We also replaced a 24x16-foot section of the roof.
Figure 2. The undamaged bedroom ceiling was braced with a temporary wall cushioned by a folded drop cloth (left). Broken framing members like this 4x10 beam (below) were cut back to sound wood.