Disaster close-up via a man who’s seen it all

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Floodwaters, such as those that ravaged Texas and Florida, do vast amounts of damage to homes and businesses. The destruction, as seen in this photo by an insurance adjustor from 2005 disaster, often takes an emotional toll on homeowners as well. (Photo courtesy Mark Moorhead)

Mark Moorehead may be 1,200 miles away and high and dry from the same raging torrents that inundated Houston and much of Florida, but he still can’t forget the often life-changing results that nature can produce.

Now a retired insurance adjuster, Moorehead spent a major portion of his 30-year career with a major liability carrier, criss-crossing the country to help beleaguered homeowners face the effects of floods, fires and a spectrum of other disasters that left some—like many in Texas and Florida—homeless and heartbroken.

A longtime Tempe resident who now lives with his wife Lynda in Sedona, Moorehead thought when he retired that he’d be leaving behind his sometimes exhausting travel schedule. In the last year or so, however, he has found himself getting calls for advice from around the country— and sometimes, now as an independent consultant, again packing those same bags for another face-to-face encounter with catastrophe.

While metro Phoenix, and particularly the neighborhoods of Tempe and West Chandler, is not considered to be particularly flood prone, Moorehead says disaster can strike nonetheless unexpectedly, sometimes from natural causes but more frequently of manmade origin—plumbing leaks, bursting water heaters, even forgetting to open the backyard valves when SRP irrigation is due to arrive.

In fact, Moorehead remembers one call he received while still in Tempe requiring him to check out the damage caused by a bursting reverse-osmosis canister.

“The client said he probably had just driven out of his driveway on a trip to Pinetop when the unit likely burst,” Moorehead recalled. “He didn’t discover it for a week, and of course the damage was already done.”

As in many of the cases Moorehead remembers investigating, he says the after effects can sometimes be equally or more disastrous than the event itself, notably in cases where a water buildup results in the occurrence of mold.

Mold doesn’t produce headlines but remediation can prove nearly as costly in some cases as the damage caused by hurricanes like Andrew, Ike and Katrina, all of which required his deployment for months as homeowners worked to recover their losses.

Based on his nearly three decades of experience, Moorehead says that in cases where flooding occurs—as it has most recently in Houston— insurance adjusters move forward during a three-phase process: demolition and debris removal immediately after families return to their home; reflection and assessment by the owners, often the longest and most difficult phase; and rebuilding or relocating, depending on what occurs during phase two.

That second part of the recovery, Moorehead says, is often the most troubling for homeowners because many do not carry flood insurance. Also, some are left without permanent or even adequate temporary lodging, creating a massive search for assistance from families or friends who are unaffected and may be able to provide assistance.

This where Tempe and West Chandler residents could find themselves closer to the huge ripple effect that already has resulted from Hurricane Harvey, suggested Moorehead.

“People here who have a connection to anyone who lives in the devastated areas in and around Houston should not be surprised to get a phone call asking for financial help, short-term lodging or even just emotional support,” Moorehead said. “A shoulder to cry on for a friend or relative who has lost everything—well, I can’t stress enough how vital that can be for a person’s survival, even if you can’t help financially or provide a place to live until their situation improves.”

Additionally, the psychological impact following a major upheaval often results in people feeling they’ve had enough and don’t want to live in a disaster-prone area. “For them,” says Moorehead, “the question arises, “Should we stay or go, which sometimes splits families down the middle. A not insignificant number of survivors told me the stress of this decision led to separation or divorce.”

Other sources of stress included temporary job loss due to flooded businesses, sharing tight quarters with family for months in hotels, or living with relatives and disruption of routines, he noted.

Lack of money, conflict over a decision to stay or relocate and high stress are the reasons the second phase of recovery is often the most difficult stage. This, says Moorehead, is a good time to listen to the kids.

“The mantra I heard from children was ‘stay and rebuild.’ Children love their schools, friends, routine and familiar surroundings.

And the single most important factor in helping families move from phase two to phase three in the process was support from family, friends and neighbors.

“Those without a support network had more challenges and either delayed the decision to rebuild or moved to another city.”

How you can help

Having said that you may be called for guidance by someone who has been affected by Hurricane Harvey, Moorehead says there are a few things to know that might be helpful. Among those:

1. Although FEMA provides grants of up to $33,000, restrictions and qualifications can make the application process daunting. “Most people without flood insurance apply for low interest loans through the Small Business Administration,” said Moorehead, emphasizing that most standard homeowner policies do not cover flood damage.

2. Two or more feet of flood water in a home will result in a rebuild cost ranging from $30,000 to $70,000 depending on the size and quality of the home. Add to this figure the cost of replacing furniture, clothing, appliances, electronics and furniture storage.

Thus, the average flood survivor will need approximately $80,000 to return to pre-hurricane status. Subtract the maximum $33,000 from FEMA funding and that leaves $47,000 in unmet expenses.

Says Moorehead:

“Many people don’t have a spare $47,000 in the bank and will walk away from their mortgage, declare bankruptcy and move in with family or friends to save money to buy or rent a home elsewhere. Also, if a second home, rental property or business is flooded, it does not qualify for a FEMA grant.”

There are no easy solutions to the crisis that many people affected by Hurricane Harvey face, just as any disaster, natural or otherwise, can be resolved by a quick fix.

If you are asked for help by Harvey survivors, do whatever you can, either financially or with moral support. And it may be a good time to schedule a meeting with your own liability insurance provider to see what additional coverage, if any, would be advisable should some sort of unanticipated disaster cause you to be displaced from the home you know and love.

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