Homeowners face choice: repair or raze and rebuild

Water resistance of original materials can make the difference

Katrina's Wake

September 08, 2005|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

When floodwaters swept through their home, Marianne and Steve Konka began asking themselves: Do we salvage or rebuild?

Two years ago, Tropical Storm Isabel sent two feet of water rushing into their five-room house in Bowleys Quarters. The water subsided in a day.

But in its wake, there were sloped walls, a warped floor and a foundation as twisted as any pretzel.

"The house was like a funhouse after that, everything was crooked," said Marianne Konka, 49, a nurse at St. Joseph Medical Center.

`Doesn't look good'

They decided to rebuild. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, homeowners in gulf states might have to do the same.

The damage, experts say, will prove too much to repair in many cases - the waterlogged foundations of aging houses just can't withstand weeks of submersion.

"I wouldn't say it's a guarantee, but it doesn't look good for many of those houses," said Lance Fisher, general manager of Marcor Remediation, a Hunt Valley contractor that repairs and rebuilds flood-damaged homes.

Whether a house can be salvaged generally depends on the amount of water that washes in, its condition before the storm, the time lag before repair work can begin and the type of building materials used, experts say.

Age can be key

Jay Crandell, a consulting structural engineer from West River in Anne Arundel County who specializes in assessing storm-damaged buildings, said the age of the building can be critical.

Homes built before the 1930s were made with more moisture-resistant woods, such as cypress, and will dry out faster than more modern houses, he said.

"The cost of repairing the older homes may be less than the cost of repairing the new homes," he said.

New Orleans is known for having a high percentage of older homes and that could help in the long run, Crandell said.

If floodwater is confined to the basement, the house can often be saved - as long as the foundation remains sound, said Atul Patel, a structural engineer and president of Faisant Engineers in Baltimore.

But if water rises above ground level, he said, the house becomes harder to salvage because of damage to floors, ceilings and support beams.

And, he said, "If a building is flooded for more than a week, there's less and less chance that they're going to be able to salvage it at all."

The most flood-resistant building materials are brick, masonry and concrete, Patel said, so New Orleans' warehouses and office buildings are likely to be salvaged.

The same is true for many of the famous Spanish-style brick homes in the French Quarter, which was not severely flooded.

Unfortunately most homes in the Gulf Coast region - like most in the United States - are of wood frame construction. Many brick-front houses are built with wood frames, Patel said.

Code enforcement

Patel said there is a national building code that most states generally follow, but its recommendations are not uniformly enforced from one state or one jurisdiction to the next.

"In shoreline areas, there needs to be requirements that builders use only more flood-resistant materials," Patel said.

Even if a structure isn't too badly damaged by water, homeowners must contend with mold. It usually will start appearing two to three days after flooding, Fisher said.

Small amounts of mold grow harmlessly in many workplaces or homes. But it can spring up in abundance in flood-damaged buildings, causing allergic reactions, similar to pollen or animal allergies. In rare cases, it can cause flu-like symptoms and skin rashes.

Scrubbing it with bleach helps. If left unchecked, it can spread to areas between interior walls and in crawlspaces.

"If you can get to a house quickly and dry it out, you can save a lot of it," Fisher said.

Homeowners in the gulf states also should be concerned about mold and toxic chemicals seeping into their homes from polluted floodwaters.

When Grand Forks, N.D., was flooded in 1997, hydrocarbons from damaged fuel oil tanks seeped into the wood framing and concrete of many houses, said Wayne Seames, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of North Dakota.

Five homes that were otherwise structurally sound had to be destroyed because of the ill effects of exposure to hydrocarbons, Seames said.

Some types of hydrocarbons have been linked to cancer. Others cause headaches and dizziness, he said. With the number of oil storage tanks and petrochemical plants in New Orleans, homeowners there face the same risk.

"I could foresee it being a major problem down there," Seames said.

And if the experience after Isabel is any indication, many homeowners might have to fight for insurance compensation.

The Konkas are still living in a trailer. It took a long time to resolve a dispute with their insurance company over flood insurance payments. Even now, construction is proceeding slowly.

"What we've got so far is a hole in the ground," said Marianne Konka.

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