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After the storm: Assessing hurricane damage for insurance claims

[fa icon="calendar"] Sep 14, 2020 2:57:05 PM / by Kenneth R Quigley, PE

Hurricanes wreak significant damage in the coastal areas they hit—destroying the built and natural environments in their path. Once a storm has passed, businesses and property owners focus on recovery and restoring the local economy. A key piece of that process is determining the damage caused by the hurricane. Property owners need to have funds to restore their property or business and insurance adjusters need to provide appropriate funds for covered damages. Both Both need experienced engineers to provide wind and flood assessments suitable for property insurance, to understand their needs and determine the facts to decide and defend claims. 

How the damage was caused matters in determinations of who pays for what, since most insurance policies do not cover flood damage. For property owners in an area that has been declared a federal disaster, a report differentiating flood and wind damage is used to determine how much insurance comes from property insurance and how much comes from flood insurance and other programs sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  

 Flood versus wind 

Flood damage 

Generally, flood water is more damaging because it exerts more pressure on a building than wind, and it can cause damage in other ways (such as wetting drywall and causing mold). Flood damage typically comes in three forms: 

  • Storm surges, caused by hurricanes that can raise the seawater level , sometimes as much as 20-30 feet above sea level. The level of the water and the wave action are both damaging. 
  • Still flooding, with little to no wave action, in inland areas with canals and lakes connected to the sea, where the water rises because of the ocean water pushed into them. 
  • Torrential rains that can cause localized flooding or rivers to flood their banks. 

 Wind damage 

Winds cause damage in three different ways during a hurricane? 

  • Wind-blown debris breaks windows and damages property causing physical and water damage. 
  • High winds rip roofs and other building components off of buildings causing physical and water damage. 
  • Wind-driven rain infiltrates buildings through existing openings, such as vents, torn roofing, damaged siding, or broken windows, and causes water damage in areas with or without flooding. 

 Why it matters 

In addition to properly documenting conditions so insurance or legal professionals can determine insurance coverage and reimbursement, many commercial and industrial clients need to get back up and running as quickly as possible. That could mean destroying evidence of storm damage. It’s in everyone’s best interest for businesses to recover and rebuild quickly to help the local economy to recover. In these cases, the engineer can preserve or record critical evidence needed for insurance claims or potential litigation. 

 How damage is assessed 

In the immediate aftermath, as an insurance professional or property owner, part of the process of reviewing the claim can include working with an engineer with experience in catastrophes, who will do an engineering assessment and answer questions. Engineers look closely at several pieces of evidence to make their determination of the amount and cause of damage: including wind data, flood and rainfall data, pre-existing conditions, and whether the building still exists. 

 Wind data 

In order to compile their report, engineers: 

  • Obtain speed and direction from sources like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or private meteorological companies. This data is often gathered at central land-based locations, like airports, so it requires judgement and interpretation to determine the wind speed in a specific area or on a particular building. Hurricane reports by the National Hurricane Center (NHC) provide useful information, though these final reports are not issued until after the hurricane season is over.   
  • Observe conditions in the vicinity of the loss, and compare them to standards relating wind speeds to physical observations such as the Enhanced Fujita Scale, the TORRO Scale, and the Beaufort Scale 

 Flood data 

When it comes to flood data, engineers do the following as part of their assessment: 

  • Obtain surge elevation from sources like FEMA and NOAA or local sources. As with wind data, flood evidence may not be collected at or near the building that is being assessed, so this requires expert interpretation. 
  • Directly observe flood lines or other evidence of the height of the flood.  

 In many cases, a building has both wind and flood damage. Skilled investigators can determine which happened first and which force caused the types of damage—such as recognizing that the wind destroyed the building prior to the flood. 

 Pre-existing conditions 

A key job of the investigator is to understand the condition of the building before being damaged by the hurricane. In some cases, it can be easy for a trained engineer to identify new versus pre-existing damage. For example, a crack in concrete with moss growing in it pre-dates the storm, while a fresh crack has sharp edges and has not had time to wear down in the weather may have been storm related. The engineer also needs to determine if the damage is consistent with the forces created by the storm. 

 Non-existent building 

Engineers arrive as soon as possible after the hurricane has passed. However, it’s not always possible to arrive immediately or before things change. They may arrive after cleanup, stabilization, and repairs have started or after a local municipality has knocked down buildings determined to be unsafe. In those cases, it can be more difficult for the engineer to ascertain the exact cause of the damage, though they will use all available evidence to make their determination of the likely causes. 

 When there is no building to assess, investigators use other information to make a determination of what likely would have happened given the storm conditions, including examining remaining debris, drawings, photographs, and descriptions of the buildings; and examination of typical structures in the area and how they were impacted by the storm.  

 Reporting the damage 

Trained investigators create a complete report of the damage and make determinations about the causes of damagestructural stability, and scope of repairs. These reports are generally used by insurance companies and property owners, but they may also be required to resolve litigation, especially in cases where the insurance company and owner disagree about the settlement. Because they may be used in court, these forensic analyses must be done to ensure the evidence and analysis will be acceptable for a court case. This means they must adhere to rules about scientific opinions. 

 Photographs are a key piece of documentation. They can show physical damage to a building, something missing, or where parts of the building ended up after the storm. When possible, investigators will examine photos and other documentation, such as architectural drawings, about existing conditions to make a comparison. They may also review historical aerial photos in certain cases. 

 As experts in the aftermath of catastrophes, we have a proven process to investigate and report on the damage and determine what happened during the hurricane. Our investigation and reporting enable insurance companies and owners to properly assess the damage and enable the property owner to recover and rebuild. Both floods and wind cause damage, but because insurance companies treat them differently, it’s important for all parties to understand how we approach the investigation and make the determination of cause.  

 Get in touch today to learn how we can help you after the storm passes.



Topics: Disaster, Flood, Project - Hospitality, Catastrophe Response, Hurricane Damage