Avoiding Recovery Pitfalls: Part 2- EPA & FEMA Debris Removal

Whether you are planning on using a FEMA/EPA contractor for your site cleanup, or electing to use your own, you need to be very, very cautious. FEMA/EPA contractors get paid by the ton, and are more than happy to scrape your lot clean regardless of whether this is required or not. Concrete weighs a lot, so they love to take away as much as possible. However, removing re-usable foundations, walls, walks and driveways, and disturbing the compacted building site can create reconstruction costs that exceed your policy limits. Here is what you need to know.

In a normal house fire, even one that burns to the ground, the buildings foundations, driveways, retaining walls, fences etc. are typically undamaged or at least reusable/restorable. Under normal fire conditions, it is rare or never that foundations, slabs, walkways and walls are arbitrarily removed, unless they are damaged beyond repair. However, in a disaster setting such as the Thomas, Tubbs or Carr fire, the quantity of destroyed homes, and the proximity of these homes to each other sometimes creates a potential hazmat condition. When 1,200 homes in the same community burn to the ground, the likelihood of large-scale soil contamination can be significant. Thus, the EPA many times step in and require all debris and home-sites to be “abated” of hazardous materials. This is what that means to you.
Most FEMA/EPA contractors will simply go on to a site, and scrape it clean. They will also abate (remove) 6″-12″ of topsoil assuming that it is all contaminated. Once the debris and topsoil has been removed, the EPA or local health department will issue a “clearance” for your lot, stating that it is ready to be rebuilt. But here is where you need to be careful.

Before authorizing any debris removal, have a discussion with your abatement contractor and GET IT IN WRITING as to the scope of work. Will they be removing footings or foundations? If so why? Will they be removing topsoil, driveways or walks? If so why? Has the site already been tested positive for contaminates, or is the contractor just guessing on the work that needs to be done. If the site tests positive, can the abatement be performed without removing your foundations? You need to know this. The contractor gets paid by the ton. They are incentivized to clear the lot as quickly as possible. No contractor wants to perform detailed abatement by hand and work around foundations if they can simply rip it all up and haul it all away. In some instances that requires the importation of new soil and the re-compaction of the entire lot. In Santa Rosa, so much topsoil was nu-necesasarly removed during cleanup, that the State of CA had to step in and pay for some of much of it to be replaced.

Depending upon each home-site, I have seen costs for site work and foundation replacement easily exceed $300k. That is money you will need to rebuild your house. In addition, some policies place limits of $5,000-$10,000 for “soil stabilization”, which is basically fill and re-compaction.
Using a FEMA/EPA contractor may be the cheapest way to get your debris removal done, but before you let them start work, get a clear understanding of what is being removed and why. Know how the site will be left. Taking simple precautions here could save you hundreds of thousands of dollars. Be smart.

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By Kelly Konzelman

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