Texas AgriLife Extension experts: preparation, safety, finances important to disaster recovery

COLLEGE STATION – Returning home and cleaning up after a disaster such as Hurricane Ike can be a difficult, time-consuming and potentially dangerous task, said Texas AgriLife Extension Service experts.

But there are ways evacuees and others returning to damaged homes can prepare for what they might encounter and get a good start on recovery.

“With Hurricane Ike, the major property damage issue is flooding,” said Janie Harris, AgriLife Extension housing and environmental specialist. “If a home has been flooded, pretty much everything that’s gotten wet from flood waters should be considered contaminated. People will have to sort out what can be disinfected and saved and what has to be thrown out.”

Harris said before evacuees return to their homes, they need to ensure their own safety.

“The first thing people should do is listen to the authorities in the affected area and not return home until they say it’s safe to do so,” she said. “It won’t do any good to go home if there’s dangerous debris, downed power lines or possibly even snakes or rodents in the area.”

Harris added that if people return prematurely and suffer an injury, there may be limited access to medical attention.

“Once it’s safe to return,” Harris said, “people should prepare by getting together supplies that will help sustain health and safety, along with items for initial clean-up.”

In addition to sufficient food and water, Harris suggests bringing a first aid kit, insect repellent, hand sanitizer, a basic tool kit, sturdy closed-toe shoes, and basic personal hygiene items such as soap, bath towels, toothbrush and toothpaste.

“People should also prepare by getting cleaning supplies such as buckets, bleach, sponges, scrub brushes, dust masks, gloves and trash bags,” she said. “And they should wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and work gloves or latex gloves, depending on what they’re doing.”

A list of suggested post-disaster cleaning supplies and other items can be found at Texas Extension Disaster Education Network, Texas EDEN, site, http://texashelp.tamu.edu/hot-topics/ . Click on either “Disaster Recovery Supply Kits” or “Restoring Your Home and Belongings” under the Disaster Recovery Resources heading.

Harris said some of the other issues returning evacuees will have to address include the lack of electricity, limited access to food or fresh water, the need to make temporary repairs to homes and taking steps to control mold growth.

“Many people will need to make some temporary repairs to roofs, walls, windows or other parts of their home using tarps, plastic sheeting, plywood or other materials,” said Dr. Joyce Cavanagh, AgriLife Extension family economics specialist. “But before they make those repairs, they need to contact their insurance company, take photos of the damage and begin an inventory of damaged personal possessions for insurance purposes. Then they can make temporary repairs to prevent further damage.”

Cavanagh added that people making temporary repairs should retain receipts for supplies purchased as some or all of these costs usually are reimbursed by their homeowners insurance.

“During the recovery process, it’s also a good idea to keep a ‘communications log’ of the people you speak with and what was said during the conversation,” she said. “This includes conversations with your insurance company, local authorities and contractors or others doing home repairs. That way you can keep track of things like expected repair dates, estimated costs and specifics on actions to be taken or work to be done.”

Cavanagh added that additional near-term considerations for those returning to their homes relate to financial matters.

“One of the first things to do is check to see if your bank or credit union has an operating branch in the affected area,” she said. “And see if you can find a working ATM that’s on your debit card network.”

Cavanagh also urged caution on taking out cash advances on credit cards.

“Interest rates on cash advances tend to be higher and typically start as soon as you take out the advance,” she said. “And there’s usually no grace period on a cash advance. So if you need a loan, check with your bank or credit union as they will have more favorable terms.”

Disaster unemployment insurance may be available for those who have lost their jobs or are unable to return to work because of disaster-related damage to their workplaces, she said. “As for other disaster-related finances, those with homeowners insurance will probably have coverage for living expenses if their home is uninhabitable, and may have enough in savings to live on until these funds become available,” Cavanagh said. “But people with limited financial means may need to take advantage of disaster relief funds or emergency food stamps.”

She said information on insurance coverage and procedures should be available through the individual’s homeowners insurer or the Texas Department of Insurance at 800-252-3439 or http://www.tdi.state.tx.us .

“People also need to remember that monthly bills don’t stop when there’s a disaster,” she said. “Even if your home or vehicle is damaged, you still have to make your payment. And you may need to use credit cards to pay for some necessary items. You have to be especially careful about how you budget and stretch your money to last throughout disaster recovery.”

Cavanagh suggested those needing financial relief contact their mortgage company or creditors before payments come due to discuss options.

AgriLife Extension offers online information in Spanish and English on recovering from hurricanes, floods and other disasters, most of which can be downloaded free. These can be found at http://agrilifebookstore.org and by clicking on Disasters and Emergencies.

Some materials also are available at county AgriLife Extension offices in affected areas.

Additional disaster recovery resources, including information on disaster-related health issues, food and water safety, financial recovery and risk management, septic systems and water wells, and tree removal can be found at the Texas EDEN site, http://texashelp.tamu.edu/

View more of our coverage on the BEEF Hurricane Ike site.

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