I climbed up on the roof to inspect the damage from an aerial view. As far as I could see, there were missing roofs, debris piled against houses, and damaged walls and windows. Trees and power lines were down. There were no sounds of TVs or radios or traffic in the streets. It was too soon for anyone to return. And noticeably, there was no sound of hammering, sawing or other repair work. It was eerily quiet because the storm troopers had not arrived. The money was not flowing, so work had not yet begun. I was in the war zone – where the eye of the hurricane had passed over South Florida. It was the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew.
Most homeowners carry property insurance. I have met a few who did not. One was a man in Coral Gables, Florida, who paid cash for a home two days before Hurricane Andrew blew through. He hadn’t had time to purchase insurance coverage before Andrew hit the house like a giant tornado. Pieces of its roofing tile were embedded in the walls of adjoining houses. His home was not a total loss, but all the repairs were out of pocket. I had been retained by a national insurer to write an estimate on his neighbor’s home, the residence of an insurance agent who had coverage with his own company. They wanted an independent damage assessment.
As a Licensed General Contractor and professional estimator, I prepared an estimate for the home. I still do that today, only my estimates are prepared in my role as a Licensed Public Adjuster. No one should be the contractor and adjuster on the same property. That ended in most states with the licensing of adjusters – whether they are company, independent, and public adjusters.
At this Coral Gables home, the insurance agent reported to me that he and his wife and kids hid in the master bedroom closet, the strongest interior room, to ride out the hurricane. Nearly everyone I have spoken to over the years who has done that has said they would never do it again. The noise was deafening. His children were terrified. The power went off. They huddled in darkness, listening to their neighborhood be destroyed.
I inspected their home several weeks after the storm and found shards of Spanish tile embedded in their master bathroom wall. It had shot through the window like a bullet and stuck in the sheetrock. Of course, the homeowners could hear all the damage occurring but could not leave their “safe” room.
The protocol I use is to start at the top and work down, opposite of when I built homes, starting at the foundation and working up to the roof. I trace the cause of damage which, many times, is roof leaks. If there is a kitchen fire, I start in the kitchen and work out to the less damaged rooms.
The tiles crunched under my feet as I climbed up to the ridge of the roof. Broken and missing tiles were evident everywhere, as well as whole bare patches where they had been stripped off the roof, leaving bare underlayment. Some slopes were missing the underlayment as well, exposing the plywood deck. But even the remaining tiles weren’t right – they moved when stepped on or touched. Their fasteners had been pulled loose. The whole roof was beyond repairable due to so many missing tiles and the additional breakage that would occur during the repair process. I declared the roof a total loss.
I measured the roof with a long, flexible tape with a tennis ball attached to the end. More than one friend had stepped off a roof and hit the shrubbery when attempting to measure a roof. They’d hooked their tape to the ridge and backed down the slope, pulling their tape measure, and inadvertently stepped off the roof edge. So I straddled the ridge in the middle of the roof and let the tennis ball pull the end of the tape down to the bottom edge. The ridge is also the easiest place from which to sketch the roof since the entire roof is usually visible. It’s a little tricky – straddling a roof with a clipboard, camera, tape measure – drawing an outline of the slopes, ridges, and eaves without falling off in the process. So much for the roof.
I measured each slope. The edge dimensions that were unreachable by foot could be determined from the ground, so I took pictures and climbed down my ladder. I used a folding ladder that fit in my trunk – another accessory to cart around in addition to my luggage.
Now I know three ways to measure a roof. Only one of them requires actually climbing onto the roof.
Then I measured the perimeter and height of the outside wall. It was stucco, and it had holes punched in it from the neighbors’ stuff that had become airborne. Hurricane winds change direction as the storm gradually passes by, depending on how close your property is to the eyewall. This home had damage on all four exterior walls.
I noted overhangs, fascia, gutters, and downspouts. I took pictures as I walked and recorded dimensions.
I also looked at the swimming pool and the now non-existent pool cage. An entire palm tree, roots included, lay at the bottom of the pool. The water was a reddish brown from the bark dissolving into the water – already staining the pool plaster near the tree a dark brown.
My biggest surprise came upon entering the home through the double front doors. The entry was ceramic tile. There were two deep holes punched into the tile. Later the homeowner told me they had propped a large Castro convertible sofa-bed up against the two doors to help hold them closed. It didn’t work. When the doors blew in, the couch legs punched holes in the tile entryway. The couch was gone.
The sunken living room was in front of the entry. Behind it was a row of sliding glass doors that opened onto a large covered patio. Beyond the covered area was the swimming pool, then the backyard, and what remained of a fence. There was no Castro convertible sofa-bed to be seen.
It had been blown across the sunken living room, through one of the sliding doors, across the patio, and over the top of the swimming pool, deposited in a neighbor’s yard several blocks away. To think, the family was in a closet at the end of the house during that event!
I took measurements room by room. I started at the far end of the house, taking pictures and measurements, labeling my notes to enter into my computer estimating program later at the hotel. I worked my way back to the entrance, finishing with the living room.
I noticed a strange band of white stuff on the living room wall. It was an inch or so thick and about six inches wide, going around the perimeter of the room on the walls at about eye level. I took pictures of it, and then studied the room to see what had happened. There was no texture on the ceiling. It had been scoured off the ceiling and deposited in a band on the walls by the whirling wind after the doors blew open. Mind-boggling! It was hard to believe the house was still standing.
My estimate was turned into the temporary regional insurance office – an entire hotel taken over as an emergency claims center. Six hundred adjusters from the same company were staying in that hotel.
I had to revise my numbers later to reflect local price adjustments. The agent getting bids on the repairs discovered they were way over my numbers. My computer pricing had to be adjusted to reflect current local conditions. I guess that’s why it’s called “adjusting.”
I was dealing only with the value of the loss. The adjuster from the homeowner’s own company where he was an agent had hired me to perform the loss estimate.
I was not dealing with his fine print, his additional coverages, his depreciation, his deductible, his contents, or his additional living expenses. I would learn that later. For now, I was doing the easy part.
After a few years working as a staff property adjuster with a major national insurance company, I learned that most insurance company adjusters have zero construction experience. The companies send their adjusters to school for weeks to teach them construction terminology and estimating techniques.
I was the exception. I was trained and retrained. I learned from the best. I went from being an estimator to being an adjuster.
Later, I left my staff adjuster position and traveled as an independent adjuster. I had become, at least for a while, a “storm trooper.” It was part of my journey to become a public adjuster.