Late Easter morning, Charlie Collins heard the wind whistling outside of his three-bedroom rental house in Monroe, LA. The wind picked up and got louder. Collins went to the living room window and saw the grass blowing “aggressively,” paper and debris blowing around—and then an outdoor grill flew fly.
“At that point, I knew I needed to get my boys and go into the bathroom,” says the 37-year-old wire technician for AT&T. “I put my wife and two boys into the tub.”
The tornado passed overhead, ripping a hole in the roof, blowing out the windows in the living room, and bringing down the carport, which crushed the couple’s two cars.
“It really sounded like you’re sitting under a hair dryer … [and] you could feel it. The house was vibrating,” says Collins. “I was just hoping that it would pass soon.”
The family of four were lucky: They survived the tornado unscathed, although their home and nearly all of their belongings were destroyed. At least 34 people have been confirmed dead in the outbreak of tornadoes that struck the Southeast on April 12 and 13. In addition to Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas were affected. About 23,500 or so buildings were damaged, with a reconstruction value of almost $3 billion, according to early estimates from real estate data firm CoreLogic.
Natural disasters are a regular, if unpredictable, feature of life. But these days, the coronavirus has thrown a wrench into the recovery process, adding delays and complications into what is already a difficult process. There is no playbook for rebuilding during a pandemic. And unfortunately, newly homeless victims are being forced to navigate new social distancing orders and health concerns while much of the rest of the nation is sheltering at home.
This year has been the deadliest for tornado outbreaks since 2012—and the season is just beginning. A series of twisters struck Tennessee in March, including the Nashville and Cookeville areas, killing about two dozen people. So far at least 67 people have been killed this year—and the devastation couldn’t come at a worse time.
“What a cruel situation to have a natural disaster on top of an unprecedented pandemic,” says Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University in New York City. “It’s beyond most worst-case scenarios.”
Tornado season usually begins around now and peaks in May, says Curtis McDonald, a CoreLogic meteorologist. The twisters typically start in the Southeast and then move into Oklahoma and Kansas in May, and then into Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota in the summer.
“We can cross our fingers that we’ll have a quieter [and less] severe season,” says McDonald. But “we’re going to continue to have weather events.”
Right after the tornado struck Monroe, Collins and a few of his neighbors did what came naturally—despite the social distancing necessitated by COVID-19. They got together to survey the damage in the community and make sure everyone was all right.
“When this all started, I kind of forgot all about” the coronavirus, says Collins, who has had neighbors, friends, and family come inside his home and has gone out to help neighbors in turn. “I know that the virus is serious … and we could catch it. But the only thing on my mind is picking up the pieces and figuring out what my family and I are going to do next.”
Collins’ house is uninhabitable. He sent his sons to their grandmother’s house and spent a few nights in a nearby hotel. He and his wife plan to move their family into a two-bedroom apartment this week.
“It’s smaller than we had,” Collins says of the apartment. “But we’re thankful to be able to get something.”
Navigating insurance companies and inspections while social distancing
Rebuilding after a tragedy is typically a painful, delay-filled process. But the public health disaster will certainly drag it out further.
After a disaster, communities typically recover by about 10% a year, says real estate appraiser Randall Bell, CEO of Landmark Research Group. He specializes in real estate affected by disasters. The pandemic and stay-at-home orders could slow it down even more because they’re “another layer of disaster,” he says.
Most homeowners rely on their insurance companies to provide the money they need to rebuild. The good news is that unlike other disasters, most homeowner insurance policies cover tornado damage, says John Rollins. He specializes in catastrophe-exposed properties as a principal at Milliman, an actuarial and consulting firm. So most homeowners can assume they will get paid for damages.
The question is how long it will take to get that money. Most states have designated insurance companies as essential businesses. But the response from insurance companies could still vary, based on state or local restrictions.
“I don’t know if the typical governor would have considered catastrophe insurance response … when they issued executive orders,” says Rollins.
In addition, most insurance companies still rely on adjusters to go out to a site to survey the damage before issuing a payout. While more companies are using remote and drone-based technologies to help assess the wreckage, the industry hasn’t fully adopted the technology just yet, says Rollins.
If an in-person appraisal is going to take place, an appraiser working with the insurance company will call the affected homeowner to mutually establish that neither side has symptoms of COVID-19, says appraiser Bell. They’ll ask the homeowner to be the only person in the home, to limit exposure, and to leave all of the doors open so they don’t have to touch anything. And, of course, the appraiser will be practicing social distancing—so no handshakes.
The American Red Cross has adapted its emergency response procedures. Instead of opening mass shelters in communities (a social distancing nightmare), the organization picked up the tab for temporary hotel rooms for tornado survivors.
“A lot has changed,” says Anthony Tornetta, a Red Cross spokesman. “In years past, we would have put a large number of these people into a [shared] shelter, like a high school gymnasium.”
On the bright side, it may be easier to find vacant hotel rooms and Airbnb rentals than it would be after a disaster in normal times. With fewer people traveling and booking accommodations, there’s more availability for those who need it most.
Rebuilding in the time of coronavirus
While the prospect of rebuilding during a pandemic is daunting, construction is still permitted in all but five states: Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington. None of those states was affected by the recent tornadoes. And with roughly 22 million people filing for unemployment within the past month or so, there are plenty of people who want to pick up the work.
But while it may be easier to hire a team to clear out felled trees, builders still need permits before they get started. If it’s a big job, they’ll also often need engineering approvals to complete the work. Those could be harder to obtain with many government employees working from home.
“In most places, repair activity is deemed essential. The repairs can happen,” says Robert Dietz, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders. “They’re just going to take longer.”
Rebuilding could also be more expensive.
After a disaster, drywall and lumber prices can shoot up 20% to 40%, depending on the scale of the catastrophe, says Dietz. And the pandemic is making it more difficult to get building materials, as it has disrupted the global supply chain. Nearly a third of kitchen cabinets, lighting, and plumbing materials come from China.
It may also be harder to find enough skilled construction workers and tradespeople with specialized experience to help all the homeowners in need. Usually after disasters, these folks will travel from other parts of the country to where the need is greatest. But the health concerns and constraints will likely lead to fewer folks traveling to new locations.
“That’s going to add additional delays and hiccups in the pipeline,” says Dietz.
Volunteer efforts are continuing—with caveats
Before “coronavirus” became a household word and the stay-at-home orders and nonessential business closures began, 10 tornadoes tore through Tennessee, including the Nashville area, from March 2 to March 3. Roughly two dozen people died and more than 22,000 structures were damaged, according to CoreLogic.
The cleanup got underway before the public health crisis hit—but has since been hampered by it. There’s been fewer volunteers since the COVID-19 threat has ratcheted up, says Lindsey Turner, a spokeswoman at Hands On Nashville. The group is helping to organize the volunteer response to the tornadoes. And the organization has capped the number of volunteers who can work on any one project at a time, following government guidelines.
At first no more than 50 volunteers were permitted; now it’s no more than 10. That’s slowed down the recovery process in the city, she says.
“It really has been a tightrope to walk between heeding the guidance about public health and having enough volunteers in the community to meet those critical needs,” she explains.
But despite the health warnings, good Samaritans from all over are still putting themselves at risk to help victims of these tragedies.
About 17 Pinnacle Search and Rescue volunteers armed with both chain saws and N95 masks traveled to Soso, MS, this week. Tornadoes struck the small town, population around 400, on Easter Sunday.
“Most of what they’re doing is out in the open, removing trees and debris,” says Laurie Bridgers, vice president of the Walker, LA–based volunteer group. Previously known as the Cajun Navy, its 100 active members travel to small towns in the South after natural disasters. “They’re not in close contact [with others].”
Most volunteers were placed in teams with family members they’ve been living with, to avoid exposure. They refrained from carpooling on the 2.5-hour drive. They’re wearing masks and are staying in separate hotel rooms that a church has arranged for the group.
“We’re trying to keep everyone as safe as possible. [But] everyone knew the risks they were taking and still wanted to respond,” says Bridgers.
‘Trying to cope with it day by day’
Despite the terrible tragedy and painful rebuilding process ahead, some victims are just thankful to be alive.
Kelvin Worthy, 31, lost the four-bedroom rental home in Monroe, LA, he shared with his wife and six children in the Easter tornado. The ceiling collapsed on his 17-year-old twin sons and two of his daughters, but miraculously, no one was hurt beyond a few scratches and bruises.
“It lasted about two minutes, and that was the most horrible two minutes ever,” says Worthy.
But with the house destroyed and nearly all of their belongings ruined, the family have been staying in a hotel while they look for a more permanent place to live. Extended family members are scared to take them in due to the pandemic, and they do not have rental insurance.
“It’s been horrible. We’ve just been trying to cope with it day by day,” says Worthy. “It’s a pandemic in the middle of another pandemic.”