When a massive Douglas fir tree fell on her Palo Alto home during the rain and wind storms this past March, Leah Russin knew the repair work would be extensive. The tree crushed the roof, tore off an eave, severed a balcony and damaged the chimney. It also caused interior damage, as splintered wood punctured through drywalls, leaving openings for rain to fall into the bedroom, study and storage spaces.
What was less clear was when the repair work would actually start. Two months after the storm damage, Russin was still waiting for repairs.
“It’s been a challenge,” Russin said, referring to the rigmarole of finding people to address the emergency repairs, let alone the bigger project of rebuilding her home in the Barron Park neighborhood.
Labor shortages are a well-documented trend in the construction industry; California’s cascade of winter storms exacerbated the issue, according to Janet Ruiz, director of strategic communication at the Insurance Information Institute, a nonprofit trade association. “We’re in a high inflation period so the costs to repair have gone up. And then when you have large-scale amounts of damage in a community, there can be a shortage and delay for repairs due to the availability of contractors,” Ruiz said.
Information about the amount of storm damage to homes in California is incomplete.
“People are still turning in (insurance) claims so it’s a little early for numbers,” Ruiz told this news organization in May. But AccuWeather recently estimated that the total damage and economic loss from the storms was between $37 billion and $42 billion, according to an insurance industry trade report.
Mike Johnson, a general contractor who has been building homes for 40 years, described the impact of the storms by the number of houses that he is helping to rebuild. Oak trees fell on two homes in Atherton while another Palo Alto home sustained damage because of flooding.
Getting started: 'It takes time, several weeks to hear back'
Similar to Russin, Johnson noted the slow pace of the rebuilding process, in part because of labor shortages but also because of the back-and-forth of getting estimates from subcontractors and negotiating with insurance companies.
“It takes time, several weeks to hear back, sometimes a month,” Johnson said.
The protracted process has already set in for Russin. Eight days after the Douglas fir fell on her house, an insurance adjuster came out to assess the damage. Weeks later, Russin still had not seen the estimate for the repair work, but she was concerned about whether it would accurately reflect the cost of construction.
“I'm really hoping that he just puts down the damage that he sees and then somebody else says – they probably have algorithms – 'here's how much it is here (in Palo Alto),'” she said.
Navigating the claims process: 'Think about it as more of a negotiation rather than a fight'
Johnson corroborated these concerns. An insurance agent estimated that it would cost $5,000 to remove a fallen oak tree from one of the Atherton properties; it ended up costing $18,000 because the tree had to be taken out piece by piece with a hand truck. Insurance eventually paid for it but not without some negotiation.
This is typical, Ruiz said, and encouraged homeowners to enter the claims process with an open mindset.
“If people think about it as more of a negotiation rather than a fight, they’re able to navigate the claims process more easily,” she said. “The adjuster may give you a bid that you think is very low. You can talk with your contractor and can even have the contractor talk to the adjuster and say, ‘This is why we're charging these prices, and this is our standard price in Palo Alto.’”
If negotiation doesn't work, Ruiz added, then it is appropriate to speak with a supervisor. It also is possible to register a complaint with the California Department of Insurance.
Ruiz described the type of storm protection covered by a standard homeowner insurance policy. “It’s trees falling and wind damage to roofs and windows, from the top down,” Ruiz said.
Many people with homeowner’s insurance do not realize they are not protected in the event of flooding; flood insurance handles water and mudflow from the ground up. Only about 2% of properties in California are covered by flood insurance, with the majority of homeowners purchasing it through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Flood Insurance Program, Ruiz said.
Suzanne Crocker, who has lived in Palo Alto's Crescent Park neighborhood for 40 years, experienced flooding in her home when the San Francisquito Creek overflowed from the Pope-Chaucer Bridge in 1998. The water filled her basement, rising to within 1 inch of the floor joists, and required mold remediation. When the creek overflowed during the recent New Year’s Eve storm this past December, Crocker’s basement and attached garage flooded again, leaving about 2 to 3 inches of mud in her home and on the walkways and driveway. Although the damage was not as severe as 1998, Crocker struggled to find people to help with the cleanup.
"It took two guys about 6 hours to clean it up, and it cost $4,000,” Crocker said, which she paid for out-of-pocket.
Tips for forging ahead: 'Take photos, save receipts, be patient'
To get reimbursed for these kinds of storm events, Ruiz provided some tips. Take photographs of the damage right away, she said. These are needed for the claims process. If there is water damage, dry out the area as soon as possible to avoid mold. And, if there are any temporary repairs, keep the receipts to submit to the insurance company.
Johnson also emphasized the importance of patience when rebuilding, especially after the supply-chain disruptions of the pandemic. One of the homes he is repairing in Palo Alto sustained rain damage during the New Year’s Eve storm. Water pooled into the house’s foundation and underneath doors. Johnson fixed the floors, stucco and electrical wiring but other repairs have taken longer; he was still waiting in early May for a sliding glass door unit to arrive more than three months after he ordered it.
The cost of construction has risen substantially too, as building materials, like lumber and steel, are in high demand.
“Prices have skyrocketed, everything’s up. And when summer hits, I can see another boom,” Johnson said. He is busy already with all three homeowners deciding on larger remodels to their homes.
Russin intends to renovate, too. For other people who plan on rebuilding damaged homes, she offers this advice: “Start early, pull in all the connections and favors that you have and be very good to your construction workers because they'll be good to you.”