Recovery Tips From a Hurricane Survivor
Redefining "normal" is key when you're dealing with any kind of damage from a natural disaster
Houzz Contributor. Fresh out of journalism school, I fell into decorating media and immediately discovered a new passion. An Atlanta native, I spent several years as an editor for Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles magazine before making the leap to national publications and websites such as Houzz, Better Homes and Gardens and Southern Accents. I live in Birmingham, Alabama, with my husband and son, who’ve gotten used to coming home and finding the furniture rearranged. When I'm not dragging case goods across the floor, I enjoy good food and wine, college football, music of all kinds, and traveling.
Houzz Contributor. Fresh out of journalism school, I fell into decorating... More »
Kerry Christopher had done all he could to get ready. It was September 2004, and Hurricane Ivan was barreling toward his Gulf Coast home near Milton, Florida. He’d spent two days boarding up his house, moving downstairs garage contents to an upper floor and packing up bric-a-brac. Just before he turned to leave, “I had a tremendous feeling of grief just kind of wash over me,” he says. “It was very strange. I took a second and just kind of prayed about it. I had a very clear feeling at that point. The idea was, ‘Look around — this isn’t going to be here when you come back.’”
Christopher’s premonition proved accurate. After taking cover at a nearby church while the storm raged, then making his way home through several feet of water to survey the damage, he met a grim sight. “I’d had a house on pilings,” he says. “And the only thing left was the pilings.”
Although Christopher’s faith staved off the shock — “I really felt that God had prepared me, and I was exceedingly grateful for that,” he says — he still faced the long and tedious process of regrouping and rebuilding, like all people who sustain property damage and losses in a natural disaster. Here are his best tips and suggestions for recovery.
• Salvage everything you can after the storm. “The water’s going to damage some stuff and not other stuff,” Christopher says. Scour your property and surrounding streets for any of your belongings that are still usable or can be cleaned and repaired to working order. Search a wide radius — Christopher found some of his possessions half a mile away.
• Take salvaged goods with you when you leave the site. Although Christopher’s house was in a fairly rural area, he says the neighborhood had some poststorm looting.“If you let stuff sit there, someone’s going to think it’s OK to come by and pick it up,” he says.
• Be persistent in reaching out for government help. “If you’re going to try and get help from FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] in terms of shelter, you’re going to have to talk to them several times,” he says. “You have to keep touching base. Ask them, 'What’s the timeline? Have I done everything?'”
• Use common sense during cleanup. “Don’t try to do more than you’re physically able to do,” Christopher says. He also recommends wearing protective gear such as heavy gloves, heavy boots and long pants. And treat any cuts or scrapes right away — you can easily get infected by bacteria and parasites in standing water.
Related: 7 Initial Steps to Dealing With Flood Water Damage
• Canvass your area for spots with cell phone coverage. Christopher and other local residents had to drive 4 or 5 miles each day to get to the only place they could find where their phones would work. Failing that, “Just find someone with a landline,” he recommends.
• Recognize that you’re not alone. “Ask for help,” Christopher says. “For some people, it’s just pride. I had that problem, where I felt I could continue to manage. When the Red Cross showed up wanting to hand out food, I didn’t want to walk 300 yards and get it.” Eventually he did, however, and also took meals a quarter of a mile down the road to help out another family.
The hardest part of storm damage, Christopher says, is dealing with long-term lack of power. “If you can get out of the area, get out of the area,” he says. “Other than that, you just have to establish a whole different routine. You can’t think of the things you can’t do — think of the things you can do. Redefine 'normal.”
Although Christopher still owns the lot where his home stood, he chose not to rebuild right after the hurricane due to the surge in labor and material prices. “Real estate values were also going up and up in 2005 and 2006,” he says. “I wanted to stay on the water but couldn’t afford to rebuild or buy another [house].”
Enter the real estate bust of the late 2000s. Christopher bought a house on the water in 2010, a nicer and larger home much closer to his office. “In hindsight, losing my old house in Hurricane Ivan was a blessing to me,” he says.
More: How to Prep for Disaster Insurance Claims | Recovering from Hurricane Sandy
Ideabook updated on Nov. 13, 2012.
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