Hurricanes are some of the deadliest and costliest acts of Mother Nature. In 2021 alone, the season produced 21 hurricanes, led to 68 deaths, and caused over $70 billion in damages in the United States. Unfortunately, climate models predict that, due to global warming, these storms are going to get more powerful and destructive in the coming years. Having a better understanding of what to do after a hurricane will help ensure your home doesn’t become a toxic environment.
As we’ve seen over the years, contaminated environments due to hurricanes can wreak havoc on the health of those returning home. This issue was then further exacerbated by inadequate responses to the damage and improper remediation protocols. Individuals are remaining sick long after the storm blows through.
Dealing with the aftermath of a hurricane is stressful, exhausting, and emotional enough. The last thing anyone wants to worry about is if their own homes are making them sick. Those of us at Change the Air are here to help in any way we can and provide you with the tools necessary to avoid this scenario.
Whether you’re beginning your recovery journey after a hurricane or creating an action plan should the worst occur, here are six steps you should adhere to that will set you up for success.
1. Stay Out of Storm Surge Waters
Electrical hazards are one of the main reasons to stay out of any standing body of water. However, contaminants in the water are also a major concern. As this water flows throughout the area, it can pick up and collect all sorts of harmful and hazardous chemicals.
Sewage, bacteria, chemicals, microorganisms, and more are some examples of what can be found in these waters and are all contaminants you want to avoid. These hazardous materials are then deposited throughout the area where the flooding existed, including in our homes.
That’s why proper remediation is crucial so that these contaminants do not take up residence in the spaces we spend the most time in.
2. Contact Your Insurance Company
Get on the phone with your company ASAP to alert them of the damage that occurred to your home. Make sure to take an abundance of pictures to document the destruction and water damage so that you have visual evidence for the claim.
While talking to them, discuss options for finding a place to stay while the damage is assessed and until repairs are made. You do not want to stay in a hazardous environment that’s in the process of being decontaminated and rebuilt. This can lead to high levels of exposure that can negatively impact your health.
Speaking of insurance, for those who are proactively creating an action plan, getting a comprehensive policy that offers top-notch protection is a great way to set yourself up for success.
Keep in mind that standard homeowners' and renters' insurance typically may not cover all of the costs associated with hurricane damage. You’ll need to purchase additional flood and wind protection for assistance.
Coverage for contaminants like mold is also not standard in homeowners' and renters' insurance policies and typically has a limitation when it is, so this should be another additional layer of protection added. It may be covered by flood insurance, but double-check to be sure.
Another point to pay attention to is how much coverage is offered. Usually, the amount is around $10,000, which typically does not cover the cost of remediation in a catastrophic event. That can leave you with a huge bill to decontaminate the space. Weaving in other policies like property damage, flood damage, loss of use, and personal damage can help mitigate the cost of remediation treatment.
While speaking to your insurance advisor, it’s important to ask what each policy covers, the total amount you’ll receive for damages, any deductibles required, and specific exclusions prohibiting coverage. That way, you’ll be prepared for whatever comes your way.
3. Contact FEMA
On top of offering a wealth of information and aid, this federal agency provides various routes of monetary assistance needed after a hurricane. For those who are struggling with gaps in their insurance coverage, this is a huge helping hand in ensuring you get the comprehensive decontamination needed to create a safe environment. Essentially, what this means is that if someone receives $10,000 in insurance coverage for mold, but they’re in a disaster area, FEMA may be able to assist you in order to cover the difference for the remediation.
This agency will also help cover the cost of the required policy deductible for those in disaster areas.
4. Choose The Right Repair Team
Do not hire just anyone to repair your home, and do not allow the insurance company to drive the process. This often results in inadequate work that does not resolve the contamination fully. There’s a term in the industry called “restored to original condition” and while that may be true from a visual perspective, there are testing modalities to help inform you if this is true also from a scientific perspective. Unfortunately, this disproportionately affects underprivileged families because they aren’t able to afford the amount out of pocket, and are then forced to live in toxic homes.
You have the right to pick a restoration contractor. This is a huge component of protecting yourself from the harmful effects of hurricanes and flood damage, so make sure to choose wisely. Not all contractors are built the same way. You want an individual who will take all the necessary steps to properly repair your home. They should understand how a toxic environment can impact your well-being and do whatever is necessary to create a healthy home.
Keep in mind that these storms can cause mold, bacteria, and other toxins to enter your home. The company coming in to decontaminate your space should be thorough and comprehensive enough to actually eliminate these from your home so that you don’t walk right back into an unhealthy space.
Take Hurricane Sandy, for example. Companies flocked to remediate homes, but it took seven long years of remediation thereafter to actually properly remediate these homes to become healthy environments. Cutting corners, improper protocols, and a lack of understanding of how to decontaminate homes resulted in countless homeowners requiring further remediation and repairs. Not only was this a huge additional cost, but it also negatively impacted their health and wellness.
Just because it looks repaired does not mean that it is scientifically safe. There could be invisible issues behind the wall. Current building practices often allow for moisture issues that require extensive processes to handle appropriately. For instance, drywall secured to wood and then having insulation thrown in the mix can cause serious problems due to trapped moisture. As these materials get wet from water damage after a hurricane, moisture will get trapped on the backside of the drywall and the front side of the wood. The insulation will then remain wet for quite a while. It’s important to remember that it only takes 24 to 48 hours of moisture present for microbial growth.
Proper remediation protocols should account for situations such as these and take steps to remedy the problem.
5. Set Up Pre- and Post-Testing
Pre-testing following the IICRC S500 should be done initially to alert you to exactly what’s present inside your home and determine if there’s microbial growth. If microbial growth is present it would require different protocols to be followed as outlined in the IICRC S520. Making this misstep can spread the contamination of the microbial growth while drying out the home.
Mold can grow in as little as 24-48 hours, so chances are that contaminants are present inside the home if it’s taken a few days to safely return. These need to be detected so that a protocol can be put in place to properly decontaminate the space before the home is dried out.
From there, ensure that testing is performed again after remediation but before reconstruction is done. This will show whether or not the project was successful or if further steps are needed to decontaminate the space.
Like remediation companies, not all testing professionals are built the same. Make sure to choose an individual with proven experience and success, has your health at heart, and understands how important it is to get an accurate picture of what’s going on in your home. Do not opt for a company that only takes air samples, for instance. Bacteria are not identified in the air and must be tested on surfaces. You can learn more about how to vet a remediation company here.
Dust testing is a much better way to ensure residual contamination is carefully removed before moving back in. Gravity brings particles like mold spores, mycotoxins, and endotoxins down to horizontal surfaces like floors, doorframes, and furniture. So basically, where dust collects, so too do these indoor contaminants.
Testing this dust will help to determine exactly what’s hanging out in your home and potentially causing problems. Highly contaminated dust is not only a health hazard as all of those particles can enter the body when they’re kicked up into the air when the dust is disturbed. It also indicates that there’s an underlying contamination problem, be it mold and/or bacteria, somewhere in the home.
6. Determine What Can Be Decontaminated and What Needs to Be Tossed
It is important to know the porosity of your contents because not all items can be properly decontaminated.
There are three surfaces to look out for before embarking on decontamination.
Porous: liquid absorbs into them, such as clothing, lampshades, and carpet
Non-porous: liquid pools on top of them, such as finished wood, sealed countertops, and glass
Semi-porous: some liquid pools on top and some seeps into it, such as unsealed wood, leather furniture, and some plastic
Porous surfaces cannot be cleaned with full certainty and must be replaced. The contamination can exist deep within the fibers of the surface and be nearly impossible to completely remove it. This leads to continued exposure and opens the door for adverse health reactions to develop.
If the house had standing water, semi-porous materials would most likely be unsalvageable. While not fully porous, there’s still an opportunity for contaminants to exist below the surface and be difficult to completely remove.
Non-porous items are the only type of material that can be safely and effectively cleaned using a proper decontamination protocol.
This may seem like a daunting and expensive task, but your continued wellness is worth it. Speak to your insurance company and FEMA about funds to replace any items that cannot be properly restored.
We’re With You
The aftermath of hurricanes can be devastating. It’s important to take moments during this dark time to focus on the positives, such as your safety. You will get through this difficult experience and move on to brighter, sunnier days ahead.
Those of us at Change the Air are also here to help in any way we can. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any questions or concerns you have about home health after a hurricane.