Soon after Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New York City nearly five years ago, we mobilized to respond to the needs of homeowners as they struggled to recover from flooding and damage to their houses. For many, recovery continues to this day.

Homeowners and those of us who have worked alongside them have learned lessons that are valuable for any community that must rebuild after a hurricane. Here are nine key takeaways, though it is by no means an exhaustive list of what to think about as homeowners begin the long journey to recovery.

1. Beware of scammers

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, many paid contractors did good work, but many did sub-par work or, even worse, did none of the promised work at all and took off with homeowners’ scarce recovery funds. Not only did these problems setback homeowners trying to repair their homes, remediate mold, remove water, and prevent additional damage. It also complicated their long-term recovery when they had to prove they had been victimized by a contractor scam to qualify for the additional help they needed.

So what can you do to avoid scams? Do your research. Make sure any contractor you choose is reputable and experienced in the type of work you need. Get the contractor’s license number and business address and learn whether they are in good standing.

Make sure your agreement with the contractor — including the statement of work — is in writing. Work should be documented on invoices and contractors should mark your invoices paid for your records. Beware of relying on verbal quotes only. Legitimate contractors will offer documented estimates for you to inspect before doing work. Find more resources on how to protect yourself from contract fraud here and here.

2. Document the damage to your home

In New York, homeowners who didn’t thoroughly document the damage to their home or personal property had a hard time later if they needed to challenge their insurance settlement amount — and many were initially underpaid on their claims.

It’s also wise to take steps to secure your property to limit further damage. You may want to ask FEMA representatives for help getting temporary tarps so you can prevent additional water damage. New Yorkers who didn’t take steps to mitigate further damage sometimes ran into arguments with their insurer later over whether the damage was covered.

3. File your flood insurance claim promptly

File your homeowners and flood insurance claims quickly following the hurricane. Be as detailed as possible when describing items that were damaged during the storm. Follow this FEMA link for how to file a claim accurately. It can sometimes take a while to receive a claim payment. You can use this extra time to first focus on drying out or removing damaged items and carefully documenting your losses. Take photos before you discard anything and keep a journal. The better you document your experience now, the easier it will be later if you need to appeal or challenge a decision by your insurer. For tips on disaster insurance claims, see these materials from United Policyholders.

4. Document all your recovery expenses

Many New Yorkers affected by Sandy needed more than their insurance funds alone to recover from the storm, including needing help from federally funded programs. Those homeowners who kept full and detailed proof of all their recovery expenses had an easier time qualifying for this additional help. This is because any housing recovery programs that get off the ground later in the recovery process will likely need you to demonstrate how you spent any disaster relief you already received.

That’s why it’s essential to keep all receipts for any and all money spent related to recovering from the hurricane. If possible, keep a waterproof journal of transactions to go along with your receipts. No receipts are insignificant. Keep track of as much as possible, including:

  • Proof of payment for temporary housing, such as a temporary rental or hotel stay
  • Repair costs including debris removal, materials used to secure the home, labor, mold remediation, etc.
  • Replacement of any lost or damaged personal property (furniture, a new boiler).

Try to get carbon copies as soon as possible. If you write a check, be sure to keep a copy of the front and back of that check. Because ink tends to fade and items can get lost, try to scan and keep a digital copy of all receipts and paperwork, in addition to the paper originals. If you don’t have access to a scanner, consider taking pictures with your phone. Pictures taken on phones are typically automatically timestamped.

For any contractor work, keep the name, phone number, email, name of business. For every payment, get dated proof of payment using checks that you keep front and back copies of. Have the contractor mark their invoices to you paid. Only pay in cash as a matter of last resort.

5. Be clear on what disaster relief funds are to be used for

There are a variety of different sources of disaster recovery assistance; some are intended for specific purposes, such as home repairs or temporary housing. Some New Yorkers mistakenly used funds for purposes other than the funder intended. Especially when disaster assistance is publically funded, homeowners can run into problems if they didn’t use funds specifically as they were intended, including having to repay that assistance.

If you receive any disaster assistance (FEMA individual household assistance, public benefits of any kind, insurance, Small Business Administration loan for disaster recovery, etc.) be sure you have read and understand how you are expected to use those funds. If the funds are provided for home repairs, content replacement, and/or temporary housing, use them for those purposes specifically and keep detailed records of how you spent them.

6. Seek out legal services

Seek out your local non-profit legal services providers and pro bono legal help. New Yorkers turned to free legal providers after Sandy for help with understanding and accessing disaster assistance, filing insurance claims, qualifying for mortgage forbearance, getting mortgage servicers to release held insurance funds, and avoiding scams. Your local community-based legal services providers in Texas or Puerto Rico may be able to help you do the same. You can also try national resources like the National Disaster Legal Aid Resource Center.

7. Contact your mortgage lender to ask for payment relief

In New York, a lot of homeowners needed relief on their mortgage payments due to the immediate costs of recovering from Sandy, especially homeowners displaced from their homes.

If you have a mortgage and need relief from making payments, you may contact your mortgage servicer and ask them to forbear payments. You should get housing counseling or speak to legal services to make sure you understand what this entails and which options are right for you. If you request forbearance, make sure you know how long the forbearance extends and what happens to the deferred payments after the forbearance period ends so you don’t suddenly find yourself needing to pay back large lump sums that don’t have.

The FHFA has announced that homeowners with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loans may qualify for up to a year of mortgage payment relief, and may apply for assistance at the end of forbearance to avoid a spike in payments. .

8. Coping with disaster

Directly after Sandy, many homeowners needed assistance to help them through the acute stress of going through the recovery effort. The emotional and financial toll often proved to be very difficult to handle alone. If you find you need someone to help guide you through the process, you may want to contact professional counselors, local faith-based organizations, voluntary agencies. Federal, state, and local governments may be able to help you connect to the right crisis counseling assistance.

FEMA has online resources for coping with disasters. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Disaster Distress Helpline is a national hotline dedicated to providing year-round immediate crisis counseling for individuals experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.

9. Take mold issues seriously

Mold can be a serious health concern. Untreated mold outbreaks can spread from one home to neighboring properties, especially in warmer, wetter months. Quickly remove wet or moldy items from the home and allow adjacent structures (like wooden supports and framing) to properly dry out before refinishing. Be sure to use proper treatment materials. Improper treatment of mold can result in expensive recurrences later. For tips on mold remediation, you can consult a guide from a trusted disaster recovery experienced organization.

Download a PDF of our tips!

Photo credit: Home damages from Hurricane Harvey in La Grange, Texas. By Roschetzky Photography. Shutterstock.