If there’s one inescapable fact in life, it’s that we cannot control the weather. We can cure diseases, make life easier with the advent of new technologies, and even go to space, but when it comes to a natural disaster all we can do is prepare and hope for the best. There are many types of disasters that can strike–wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes–but the one I’ll discuss today is hurricanes. The reason I’ve decided to discuss this particular natural disaster is because it’s one that’s affected my life in many ways. Besides going through three major storms myself, I also spent four years working with non-profit rebuilding organizations, trying to help repair some of the damage done by hurricanes, one house at a time.

Rebuilding after a storm can be a tricky thing. No two houses are the same in terms of what damage has been done, but there still has to be a thorough and calculated process applied across the board. I consider myself lucky to have worked with one particular organization whose determination to improve that process never faltered, and whose dedication to the community was a constant reminder of the importance of the work being done. From training volunteers, to worksite safety, to reducing costs while maintaining quality, all are important aspects of rebuilding after a natural disaster. Of course, most of my experience was working for homeowners who couldn’t afford to rebuild on their own, but the process itself is the same regardless of your available resources.

New Orleans

“There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better.”

– Bob Dylan

There isn’t much I could say about New Orleans or Katrina that hasn’t been said before and won’t be said again, so all I can do is offer my own personal insight into an event that changed my life forever and undeniably shaped who I am today. There’s a running joke in the Crescent City that New Orleans isn’t part of Louisiana, or even the United States, but is actually an independent nation with its own culture and customs. Yet, the city is so uniquely American that it couldn’t possibly exist anywhere else. It’s much more than crawfish, gumbo, and jazz, it’s a state of mind and an attitude, an environment where the humid air is sweet and almost palpable.

Boy playing trumpet in historic French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana

The city is a relic, a reminder of a time when priorities were more focused on family and having a good time than on work or material gain. It’s about sweating on your front stoop and drinking cold beer under the sun with your friends and family. It’s about everything starting two hours late because time is merely a suggestion. It’s about moving a little bit slower and being a little more kind, and having a 45 minute conversation with a total stranger just because they asked how you were. I think it’s this truth that made Katrina such a devastating event. There have been plenty of storms which were bigger, more powerful, and catastrophic in their own right, but the fact that such a unique city was at the center of the disaster only amplified the effects.

french quarter

Different neighborhoods around the city were affected in different ways. Some only had wind damage, others saw flooding, and then certain areas got both. The most important aspect of the storm to understand is that fact that the majority of the damage was caused when the levees broke. The storm surge travelled up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (a manmade canal used by ships) where the water broke through on the lower 9th ward side of the levee. This neighborhood, about 8 feet below sea level, received 12 to 15 feet of water from an 18 to 24 foot tall storm surge. It is because of flooding in this area, combined with flooding and wind damage in other neighborhoods, that more than 134,000 houses and apartments across the city were either damaged or completely destroyed.

Types of Damage

As I mentioned, there are generally two ways a home can be damaged by a hurricane: by wind or by flooding (and sometimes both). Both types of damage can have a significant impact on the home, but each comes with its own set of unique problems and requires a different approach. For example, flooding can bring mud, sewage, oil, and chemicals into the home, which can create a hazardous working environment during the initial cleanup. This was especially the case in the lower 9th ward and in St. Bernard Parish. This means respirators, goggles, and gloves are an absolute necessity, and unless you’re on the Gulf Coast in the summertime, a Tyvek suit is also a good idea.

hurricane katrina

Wind, on the other hand, can cause a variety of structural issues. It can send debris–everything from branches to boats–through windows and walls, rip off siding, tear off shingles and sheathing, or take the whole roof off completely. Many houses can be repaired or “rehabbed,” but some may have to be rebuilt from the ground up. In the lower 9th Ward, the only houses left standing were made of brick, and even some of those were taken out by the flood or the barge that broke loose. On the other hand, the farther away from the levees you got, the more wind damage was sustained.

Cleanup

The first order of business after a major storm is cleanup. Usually, an agency or organization will come in and inspect the house for immediate hazards (gas leaks, animals, etc), but after that it’s up to the homeowner to take care of the rest. This means removing debris from the yard and piling it in a central location, getting rid of any dangerous materials (such as broken glass), and of course, the dreaded mucking. 

Mucking, as the name suggests, is the process of shoveling all of the mud, debris, and random objects layering the floors into wheelbarrows and hauling it away.

This isn’t necessary if only wind damage was sustained. After large storms, the city or county (or parish in Louisiana) will organize debris pickups in designated areas, which means all you have to do is take it to the curb. In other cases, you have to take everything to the dump yourself, which can mean renting a truck or finding a friend or family member with one if you don’t have one yourself.

Downtown New orleans post Katrina

After mucking, the next step is gutting. Again, if only wind damage was sustained, then there isn’t much need for it, but in areas with more than just a few inches of flooding at least some gutting is necessary. Gutting (in areas with a few feet of water) includes removing drywall and insulation, tearing up flooring, ripping out wiring and plumbing (in some instances), removing plumbing and electrical fixtures (lights, outlets, toilets), removing cabinets and countertops, replacing old sub-flooring (where necessary), and removing old siding. Basically, the entire building has to be reduced to a shell so only the basic structure remains.

Rebuilding

The next step after gutting is rebuilding, which starts with the initial treatment of all surfaces in the home. After a building permit is obtained, every square inch of the building must go through a mold remediation process. This is often required by state and local municipalities, and must be inspected before rebuilding can begin. Again, if only wind damage was sustained, mold remediation may not be necessary.

The best option in cases like this is to use a professional mold remediation company, even if you’re going to do the rest of the house yourself. After that, scrubbing and treating the foundation is necessary. In brick homes, it may be a good idea (and required in some areas) to clean the exterior surfaces as well.

Storm Damaged Home

It should also be noted that many municipalities change their building codes after a storm to make areas safer. This may mean rebuilding your house 15 feet off the ground (basically on stilts) to be above the flood line. It can also mean changes to framing codes, such as making hurricane straps mandatory.

After gutting and mold remediation comes the rebuilding. The first order of business should be taking care of any structural issues. For houses with wind damage, this means starting with the roof.

The Roof

The whole roof may have to be replaced (rafters and all), possibly just the sheathing and the shingles, or maybe just the shingles and nothing else. It all depends on how much damage has been done.

The Framing

In areas with flooding, the framing inside of the house might also have to be replaced. This may just involve replacing the studs and bottom plates, or if the flood waters were high enough, it may mean replacing everything. Many areas require termite-resistant lumber to be installed, and all areas will require a framing and structural inspection before rebuilding can continue.

The Full Rebuild

The next step is the full rebuilding process. This means any roof work that needs to be done, rough wiring and rough plumbing (which includes permits and inspections), possibly getting new siding,  installing insulation, installing drywall (which includes taping and joint compound), painting, putting in new flooring, installing and painting trim, installing new cabinets and countertops, getting new electrical and plumbing fixtures (including the final electrical and plumbing inspections), and then the final home inspection. After that, it’s just a matter of getting new appliances and furniture and then moving in.

Of course, the long and arduous process of rebuilding a home after a natural disaster is much easier said than done, but the steps themselves are fairly simple. If you ever happen to find yourself in such a situation, just remember that everything can get back to normal with hard work and time. And if you find yourself in a financial situation that will make the process seem impossible, there are always great organizations that can help you along the way.

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