Cleaning up after disaster

Cleaning up after disaster

Last Thursday, at about 3:15 p.m., co-inspector Rick and I finished up our last job. We were on Fairfax Avenue, high over West Nashville, and we had a fine view of the city.

Rick looked north and said, “Looks like that big black cloud is just about over your house.” We headed for our office—which is at my house. As we got closer, I noticed that the clouds above us were spinning. “I think that’s a real-enough tornado,” I said. “If it hits the house, I sure hope it takes it all the way down to the foundation. I don’t think I could live through another renovation.”

Well, it was a tornado—the tornado—and it missed my house by about a quarter-mile. When the news reports turned ugly and the repeated tornado warnings became more strident, I drove to daughter Jess’ school. Arriving just as the third tornado warning of the day sounded, I joined Jess and wife Brenda in a stairwell with several dozen wailing, sweating children. I heard one of the teachers say, “East Nashville is just gone.

Sunday, Brenda and I drove to East Nashville and had a look for ourselves. Edgefield isn’t exactly gone, but it does look as though one of those spaceships from Independence Day went through, west-to-east, right at rooftop level. The high parts of the houses, like turrets, chimneys, and porches, went flying. Hundred-foot-tall hackberry trees blew over, crashing into some homes and knifing through others.

Living without a roof, electricity, or telephones is ugly enough, but the East Nashville folks who own historic houses have an extra burden. They’ll probably have to fight to get their houses restored without having them remuddled.

For those unfamiliar with the term, remuddling is the act of taking a fine old house and torturing it into a hideous, gimcrack anachronism. There are lots of ways to remuddle a house, but some repeat offenses are replacing tongue-and-groove porch ceilings with plywood; chopping off a conical roof and slapping on a flat roof; replacing built-in gutters with modern nail-on gutters; and covering wood siding and trim with vinyl. There’s no end to the evil genius of remuddlers.

Since the storm, I’ve had a few calls from old-house owners looking for guidance during the rebuilding process. I’ve never dealt with big-time storm damage before, so I got in touch with my fellow home inspector, Mark Cramer. Cramer works in and around Tampa, Fla. He got quite an education in storm damage when Hurricane Andrew tore up the west coast of Florida a few years back.

I told Mark about the tornado, and I told him that while Nashville has its share of skilled tradespeople, there aren’t very many old-house specialists. I also told him that I was worried some of the insurance adjusters might not know the difference between a turret and a ferret, a corbel and a gerbil.

“Most adjusters are very fair,” Cramer said, “but probably have little or no experience with fancy, old-house stuff. They work mainly from computer-based estimating programs that won’t have a lot of that type of work listed.”

He explained that repair estimates for each damaged room are figured by adding up so many square feet of drywall, so many linear feet of baseboard, and so on. He cautioned that this kind of estimating doesn’t take into account the need for custom old-house work, such as reproducing old windows or installing sheet-metal roofing.

Cramer explained that after Hurricane Andrew, most insurance companies would pay supplemental claims when homeowners got halfway into their repair work and discovered that earlier cost estimates fell short of the actual repair costs. He concluded by saying that insurance adjusters are usually glad to look at an experienced contractor’s estimates for making custom, old-house repairs.

Old-house-owning tornado victims, here’s what you do: Find a good general contractor who has experience with old houses. Get him to write up all the repair estimates. If you have to pay for this out of pocket, it’s probably worth it.

Finally, Mark Cramer and I agree: Do not sign a claim release until all the repair work is done. Of course, this isn’t just a brick-and-mortar decision, it’s also a legal and financial decision. So don’t just take our word for it. Run it by your lawyer.

Visit Walter’s Web site at Or e-mail him at


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