The air was heavy with the dank smell of rotting wood and stagnant water as I headed into the summer resort village along the Chowan River in North Carolina following Hurricane Isabel in September 2003. It was my job, as a disaster housing inspector for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to inspect the damages caused by the hurricane, but I wasn’t prepared for what I found. Even though this was my second day in the disaster area, this scene of mass destruction instantly overwhelmed me. There was water everywhere. Cars were left at odd angles and were buried under trees. White appliances lay about like a city dump. It was everything I ever imagined a hurricane could do and more.
My eyes immediately were drawn to a scene totally out of place in this disaster environment. There, eerily hovering 10 feet above the total destruction, stood an Alpine A-frame with its entire foundation washed away. Once a house of substance, it was now suspended in mid-air by a few remaining lolly columns and temporary cribbing. Electric wires and twisted plumbing pipes hung everywhere.
How did I come to be here?
Months before, I had answered an ad in a local Richmond, Virginia, newspaper asking for Housing Disaster inspectors. I attended training sessions held locally by a representative of Parsons Brinkerhoff—a housing disaster contractor for FEMA.
After Hurricane Isabel ripped through North Carolina and Virginia, I was asked to report to Rocky Mount, N.C. The minimum commitment, as always, was three weeks. With that type of time commitment, not everyone can do disaster work. Many of the inspectors are retired military personnel or civilians who specialize in disasters. Few are home inspectors.
Rocky Mount, more than 100 miles from the path of the storm, was the headquarters for the FEMA-Parsons Brinkerhoff disaster team. A disaster headquarters needs services–phones, rooms, electricity, water and roads. This was as close to the actual disaster as the team could set up. Those services were wiped out in the path of the storm.
Upon arriving at the control center, I spent a day being briefed on disaster-specific instructions. I learned each disaster has its own set of rules and priorities. Experienced inspectors receive a briefing, a computer, and are on the road in hours. First-timers are briefed, brought up to speed on the computer, and are required to perform inspections on a disaster demo trailer as training. When you feel you are competent, you are given your first 10 inspections and kicked out the door. Actually, I didn’t feel competent until I had about 10 inspections under my belt. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what I was looking at, it was because the reporting standards are different from my standards.
Always felt I was missing something
I quickly realized disaster inspections were not going to conform to any ASHI standard I was familiar with. In the aftermath of a disaster, you are expected to evaluate a home in 30-45 minutes and get on to the next one. Accustomed to the detail of an ASHI inspection, it was hard for me to limit my investigations. No matter how many houses I did during my entire deployment, I never got over the feeling I was missing something.
FEMA focuses on loss
But FEMA inspections focus on issues different from ASHI inspections. For FEMA, it’s all about loss. You evaluate the site using a priority list composed of items necessary for safety, security and sanitation. A FEMA inspection is about assigning a monetary value to the loss and getting people the money they need to survive. Many have lost everything.
You evaluate the damage to each room. You evaluate the furnishings. If kitchen essentials are lost, you report it. You report the exterior damage. You report on whether the home or apartment is habitable and safe. Everything you report is logged into a hand-held computer. It is specific as to quantities and what a person is entitled to and what they are not. All of this is assigned a value. The report determines how much money a family or person receives. FEMA doesn’t fix anything; it gives away money. It is designed to get the family stable as quickly as possible. It supplements their insurance should they have any. Many do not.
Yes, there is fraud. Yes, there is incorrect reporting. Yes, there are inspectors who run from one house to another, with the goal of making the most money they can. They are the exception. Mostly, it’s about helping. When you see a family wiped out of a home and left with no possessions looking to you for help, you feel compassion and you make it happen.
Tie-downs save mobile home
Even after the additional review and training at the Rocky Mount site, I still was apprehensive when I started inspecting. But the moment was at hand. I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had to do my first inspection, a mobile home, sitting in the middle of a bare lot 100 miles from the Rocky Mount. When I first saw it; I was surprised it was still standing. I learn something immediately. This home was tied down with cables into the ground. Every mobile home I inspected that survived intact was tied down with cables. Mobile homes not cabled in usually were history.
River surges in and out of townhouses like caged animal
The damage to the mobile home was minor and, with my first inspection completed, I was an experienced pro. My heart ached as I arrived at the next assignment. It was a townhouse complex in Edenton. Here, stacked on piles reaching 15 feet or more, rotting and wet in the sun, were beds, tables, chairs, linens and TVs. Everything imaginable from the inside of a house was piled here.
Edenton is a historic town located along the Albemarle Sound. Hurricane Isabel tore across the Outer Banks, picking up steam across the Sound and slamming into Edenton before heading up the Chowan River. Tidal surges of 10-plus feet and winds in excess of 100 miles per hour did their destructive deeds.
Most of the damage to the townhouses was at the walk-out, first level facing the river. Built into the side of a hill, the houses had only one way in and out—usually a patio or French door. As the water entered, like a caged animal it swirled around and violently took everything back out the way it had come in.
This confirmed a belief of mine that I had formed in 1988 during Hurricane Gilberto in the Yucatan peninsula. I observed, in Mexico and again in North Carolina, that when wind and water have an alternative release point, the damages can be minimized. When there is no alter-native release point, the destruction is total.
For example, consider a basement with only one door. If the tidal surge is rushing in and there is no exit point, the water pressure builds and swirls until it destroys. In wind, if a window breaks on one side with no venting on the other, upward pressure lifts the roof and the house much like Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz. Provide alternative relief points and the damage can be decreased. In disaster-prone areas, this should be considered when houses are designed.
The worst yet to come
The second day, I headed up the Chowan River to Colerain, N.C. This was the disaster scene that overwhelmed me. The river had surged 10 feet, accompanied by 90-mile-an-hour winds. The destruction was total.
The previously mentioned A-frame dominated the scene. Set on the edge of the river, it was totally out of place. The owner, his wife and three children did not evacuate, assuming their structure could survive the surge. Here, they watched the storm roll in and the destruction take place around them. With the water lapping at their main entrance, 10 feet above the basement floor, they called the Coast Guard to be evacuated. The Coast Guard told them they were on their own, it couldn’t get there. By the slimmest of margins, the house didn’t collapse. If it had, I do not believe the family would have survived.
This was the attitude all along the path of the storm. When Isabel was downgraded from a Category IV hurricane to a Category II, many people discounted it. Hello, has anyone seen the shear force of a 90-mile-an-hour wind? Imagine a car doing 90 miles an hour slamming into your home. A Category II storm is violent.
On the A-frame, the principle of no secondary outlet came into play. The water had nowhere to stabilize the pressures inside the ground floor basement structure. It destroyed the entire wall system underneath the main living area. But for the studs and lolly columns holding in place, the house would have collapsed on itself.
While the homes farther up the hill survived the tidal surge, they narrowly escaped another disaster. The 35-foot cliff overlooking the river had been pushed back 10-20 feet. Here, four mobile homes dangled over the edge like seesaws. Looking up at this was like an image out of a movie.
Remaining inspections routine
After this, my remaining inspections became routine. Moving farther away from the path of the storm, I found destruction from wind and tree damage. When the call came for volunteers to go home, I left North Carolina. I had been there two weeks.
Would I do it again?
It would depend on the disaster. I don’t know if my psyche could hold up in all situations. Destruction can work on the soul. I did learn what housing system failures are. I learned a lot about structural issues. But most of all, I relearned how resilient people are after suffering true disaster. Most of them just hitch it up and get on with life.
Do I recommend this type of work for others?
No. I don’t recommend this type of work for all home inspectors. But for those who like helping people in tough times and can adapt to change, it is an experience you will be proud you participated in. It makes you look in the mirror and like what looks back.