Hurricane Isabel cut a swath through several states in late September 2003, causing millions of dollars in property damage. As a general contractor and a professional in disaster response, I was deployed to southern Maryland as a disaster housing inspector under contract to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. My primary area of responsibility was St. Mary's County, which is near the Potomac and Patuxent rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. Most residents of the area weren't prepared for what occurred.

But there are certain geographical areas that experience particular disasters so often that preparedness becomes a way of life. For example, Californians, depending on where they live in that state, should always be prepared for wildfires, earthquakes, or mudslides. Anyone who lives near water, especially bodies of water affected by tides or surges from upstream, should always be prepared for flooding — wondering not if, but when it will happen.

As citizens we need to be ready, but as remodelers and contractors, it is our responsibility to use our expertise to educate and assist our customers to be prepared.

Hurricane Isabel weakened considerably before it struck land, but, unfortunately, it struck at high tide. This forced a large storm surge from the Atlantic into area rivers and bays. The majority of the damage I witnessed was due to flooding. I inspected dozens of houses with anywhere from 1 inch to more than 3 feet of water intrusion. Afterward, I realized that various building methods or products could have prevented or minimized damage.


Wind debris protection. Any home in a hurricane-prone area needs window protection. Products for this type of protection include impact-resistant glass, shutters and panels, and various types of roll-down and accordion doors. Plywood is often used in a pinch but is not a permanent solution.

Flooring. Carpeting is not the ideal floor covering for a flood-prone home. Once the carpet and padding are soaked with muddy or polluted water, they are garbage. Sure, they can be cleaned, but after a disaster, everyone in the county is calling the carpet cleaners for the same problem. By the time they get to your clients, mold will have begun growing in the floor. Forget the carpet and install tile. It can sit under water for days and all you need to clean it is a mop and bleach.

If your customers insist on carpet, there are various subfloor systems on the market that help protect the the carpet and provide airflow underneath to prevent mold formation.

Electrical. Most electrical outlets and wiring are placed at floor level or approximately 16 inches off the floor. Ask customers if they would consider outlets installed 24 or 36 inches from the floor, to lessen the chance of water damage.

Mechanicals. Forget baseboard heating. Install something that won't likely end up under water. Forced-air heating and air conditioning is the obvious choice, but don't go the easy route and install it in a crawl space with the registers on the floors. Run all duct work no lower than the ceiling of the first floor. This extra work will pay off for your customers.

Walls. Drywall is an ideal choice for wall material. When damaged, it can be removed and replaced easily. If customers want the wall dressed up, install a chair rail with wood wainscot or paneling below. If the wood is damaged, it can also be removed and replaced easily, with no harm to the upper wall.

These are just a few ideas for disaster-ready alternatives. By choosing these options, not only will customers be better prepared, they'll know that you care about them and not just the bottom line. These alternatives also may help you gain jobs in a community wracked by disaster. Who better to repair a damaged home than the guy who weatherproofed the one down the street? —David W. Powers, NREMT-P, BCECR, runs Emergency Response Corps, a division of The Solutionist, a firm that specializes in disaster response and pre/post-disaster consulting. He can be reached at [email protected].