Tom Silva and Roger Cook Preach Caution for Those Returning to Storm-Damaged Homes
In an exclusive Q&A, Tom and Roger share the priorities they would set upon returning home. Top of the list: Be careful.
For those of us returning to hurricane-damaged homes as well as those of us who one day will do the same, we asked This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook and general contractor Tom Silva to tell us what they would do first upon stepping back on their homestead after a hurricane.
TOH landscape contractor Roger Cook on post-storm yard cleanup
TOH.com: You've just entered your property. What do you look for first?
Roger Cook: Wires. If you see any, do not assume they're dead. Carefully walk away even if the lines are in a tree. Remember that that tree might be electrified if the wire is live. Just wait for power-company crews to come by.
TOH.com: Speaking of trees, what if there are trees down across your property?
RC: Storm cleanup is the trickiest work you can do in your yard—extremely tricky. Cut up and remove branches (lying) on the ground so you and emergency crews can access your house. Cutting up uprooted trees is different, though.
Ordinarily, when you cut up a standing tree, you fell it and lay it on the ground. You know where the stress points are. They are where the branches and trunk touch the ground. But when a tree's laying on a house, for example, you don't know where the stresses are. You could start cutting and have the tree move in a completely unexpected way. Or, say a branch is protruding into the house. You could cut it and maybe the whole tree rolls over onto someone or another part of the house.
TOH.com: Tell us about flooding.
RC: Clear anything blocking the drainage unless the water's moving. Never get near moving water. You can't tell how fast it's moving or maybe not even how deep it is. Try to clear the blockage with a stick or a rake. If you can't do that, step away and wait for the work crews.
People addressing ponding will sometimes grab a bucket and try to haul the water away, but remember that a five-gallon bucket full of water weighs 43 pounds. Be careful. You can dig a ditch, but be cognizant that you aren't draining your yard into your neighbor's basement.
TOH.com: If your damage is limited to a flooded lawn, and you've solved that problem, how do you salvage the grass?
RC: Try to remove the silt and debris. Then use a flat shovel to skim the lawn's surface. As the muck dries, rake the lawn and shovel again. Do this early because the lawn needs air and light as soon as possible. Fertilize once things dry out. Overall, prioritize when you get to your house. Do the tasks you can do safely. If you have doubts, or you need more people to help you, wait for that help. You've survived a catastrophe. Why hurt yourself now?
TOH general contractor Tom Silva on re-entering a damaged house
Once you've safely navigated your yard, you face damage to your house's interior. Here's how Tom would organize himself.
TOH.com: You've walked up to a severely damaged—but still standing—house. Which tools are you carrying with you?
Tom Silva: A flashlight. I'd bring a generator—but use it only outside (to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning). Probably some hand tools: a pry bar, hack saw, hand saw, gloves, hammer, screwdriver, and tape measure.
TOH.com: What are the signs of catastrophic damage you'd be looking for?
TS: Sagging. Leaning walls. Doors that are jammed shut or won't close. Windows that you can't open. Now, you have to figure out what caused it. The wind could move the house (out of square). Maybe a tree's fallen on the roof. Or water can make houses slide.
If the house has been undermined at all—if the main section of house has a hole underneath it or is sagging, don't mess with it. Get out and call an expert. A lot of assessing a damaged house is commonsense, but most people don't know what to look for. If you see any of these signs, back out.
TOH.com: What else would you watch for? Nails? Loose floorboards? Snakes?
TS: That's a long list. Be alert for the smell of gas. You definitely don't want to turn a light on if you smell gas. You could blow the place up. And I'd think about alligators. I mean, I wouldn't go into any pitch-black rooms. I'd want a stick and a flashlight. If nothing else, I wouldn't want to slip and fall in the filthy water.
Look carefully at floors (other than those resting on the foundation). Code allows for a deflection (or dip) of a half-inch. But if you think you see two inches of deflection, or the floor bounces, something's wrong. Walk off the floor or even out of the house because that floor could collapse.
Stairs are one of those things in a damaged house that will probably only go if you step on them. They can look fine until you walk up them. If they're sufficiently damaged, they will go with almost no warning. Step close to the wall and hold on to railing. Stairs have more support near walls.
I once fell four-and-a-half feet through broken stairs, and fractured a heel in half. There was no indication beforehand, and it happened in a matter of a second. Other people had been up and down them regularly. It's been almost two-and-a-half years, and I still get slight pain in my heel.
TOH.com: What about roof leaks?
TS: Yes. Leaking roofs. Look for the obvious signs. Use tarps to stop leaks if you can. Next, worry about mold and mildew. Sometimes you have to remove cellulose (wall) products and wallboard. You can't just cover it up. That'll cause all kinds of materials and health problems down the line.
TOH.com: Do you start pitching debris into the yard?
TS: Yes. Get it out. Organize it outside by separating food garbage from materials. Put the food in a barrel you can seal. Inside, neaten up. Organize things. Stack salvageable furniture in a corner, for example. Get the rugs out. They hold lots of water. Move as quickly as possible to save the bones of the building. You want to get it tight, sealed, and secured.