After The Storm, Take Stock

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As I waded through the cantera stone-covered outer courtyard, knee deep in shards of glass, torn plumeria branches and nests of twisted metal lanterns, my heart sank while I glimpsed the once fiercely fortified 16th-century castle doors that I had meticulously balanced and installed in the hacienda’s entrance that were now ripped into splinters. Crossing through the threshold of this once beautifully constructed concrete and plaster home, one of my firm’s major commissions and much published residence, I was humbled by the devastation that a category IV hurricane, which had also spawned over a dozen tornadoes, had wreaked.Since the early 1960s, no major hurricane had hit Los Cabos, Mexico, which is situated at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. None as fierce as Odile has ever been recorded, though in the last five years, tropical storms, attributed to global warming, and category II hurricanes have become increasingly common. So common that when Hurricane Odile was making its way into the Gulf, only average precautions were taken and most people presumed as they went to sleep on Saturday night, that they would, at worst, have a relaxing rainy Sunday. That was all.

But the confluence of weather patterns and a warm ocean surface roiled the tropical depression into Odile—a hurricane of enormous violence. The 1-inch-thick iron doors, which were wrapped in hurricane-proof mesh, rocketed through the inner courtyard, deeply gashing my client’s plaster walls and cantera columns. The force of this explosion blew the heavy terra-cotta tiles off the loggia’s roof and splintered the beams. Hanging lanterns were torn off their canopies, becoming projectiles, smashing glass doors and windows. One of the tornadoes caused the 3-inch-thick French doors to burst out of the master bedroom and sucked out the chairs, lamps, carpeting and a huge, thick, king-sized mattress.

In the destruction I found that the doors of the butler’s pantry were torn off and every decorative metal finish was affected by the salt spray. Nickel finishes were deeply pitted, copper finishes turned bright red (not green), aluminum, steel and iron finishes became deeply rusted. The wooden doors were virtually sandblasted and aged to driftwood; glass that was not broken was etched, and any glossy tile or polished stone surface was honed flat.

My client asked me to fly to Los Cabos once the airports reopened to help evaluate the depth of destruction for insurance purposes and to provide a road map to recovery. Though, luckily, fairly unscathed by Hurricane Sandy, I am all too aware of a hurricane’s potential and aftermath and felt an obligation to pinpoint the less obvious problems that surface after the cleanup has occurred.

For insurance purposes, we extensively photographed all destruction down to the sinister appearance of mold, mildew and rust. We logged everything from construction issues to stained pillows so that every element would then be assigned a current value of the restoration or replacement cost.

Once the home was relatively cleaned up and once the wreckage had been hauled away, we were clearly more shocked at the subtle problems. The sound through the speakers was fuzzy and it was discovered that humid salty air had seeped into most components. Outlets, junction boxes and switches had been corroded. Despite the strong concrete construction, the force of the winds had sent fissures running up the walls and cracked the coquille stone floors. Levers and knobs would no longer latch and locks had a mind of their own. Several times I was locked out on the balcony, only to have to perform Romeo gymnastics to escape. All appliances needed testing, but who knows if the salt-driven air will, in the future, trigger a breakdown. Bedding was soaked by the humidity alone since Cabo’s electricity had been out for a month. So as soon as we got electricity, we rented dehumidifiers to try to save all the down pillows, duvets and cotton mattresses. (In the future, we will place all textiles, bedding, towels and pillows in waterproof plastic tubs high up in the closets.)

All carpets were ruined because a sheet of water infiltrated every room—however, they would have been saved had they been rolled up and placed at a higher elevation. The feet of every piece of furniture left a mark and were ruined. (In the future, we will have blocks made onto which the furniture will be hoisted and hopefully protect the feet.)

Damages in rooms where the doors and windows shattered were more obvious. Curtains, blinds and shutters were in tatters and all the finishes were stripped off. In rooms where water had stood for weeks before the electricity could be restored they were just as badly damaged, because the constant “steaming” made the fabrics and textiles lifeless and moldy and the waxed surfaces milky. Lampshades and books were mildewed. Mold had also seeped into the air-conditioning system, requiring disinfecting and blowing out of the system as well as changing the filters. The doors and windows not totally destroyed were swollen and wouldn’t move, and the shutters and blinds were warped.

We tested everything, noting it all. Sadly, the outward appearance of this well-constructed house, which fared far better than some of the surrounding homes, belied a host of inner problems that necessitated recognition, documentation and immediate value assessment for insurance and recovery process.

Part of good design is preparation for all circumstances. Since I have never before experienced such devastation in person, I stand guarded now to help prepare myself and my clients. The visual shock was certainly galvanizing.

First, a thorough examination of your insurance policy is essential. Make sure it covers all current replacement costs of everything mentioned above. My client was fortunate, as her home has been fully photographed while in mint condition by several shelter magazines, so she had a remarkable record of the interior and exterior. Architectural Digest-ready photographs are not essential, though the message of thoroughly documenting the structure and the interiors is a good lesson taken from this event. A guided tour with the insurance adjuster is a must (and it is helpful to have your contractor and designer included on this tour) to point out all infringements.

Hurricane-proof windows and doors should be a prerequisite, but many homes subjected to the presence of tornadoes simply blew out in Odile—as a result of the internal high pressure of the home itself being in close proximity to the extreme low pressure of the tornado. Hurricane mesh actually fared better in Cabo than most hurricane shutters when the netting was bolted to the side of the homes. You cannot anticipate where the wind will come from and only cover selected facades, because the wind and pressure are unpredictable and they do shift and always discover the weak links.

As water will most likely seep its way in everywhere, towels beneath doors and windows can help reduce the inflow (but you have to remove them immediately afterward to prevent floor warpage.) Outdoor furnishings and umbrellas obviously should be removed and exterior lanterns and fans taken down. Cars should be brought into the garage, although felled trees might end up blocking the driveway (90 percent of all cars left outdoors in Cabo sustained broken glass). I have seen many cars with covers in the Hamptons parked outdoors close to the beach, far from trees or buildings, which makes good sense, and facing the wind head on where there is less likely to be flying debris.

Many who will read this will have seen or lived through far more devastation than I have and will have many more suggestions and insights concerning how to prevent damage and then how to record it afterward. But once the devastation is cleared away, I recommend looking carefully into all your electronic and heating/AC systems, because months later the aftereffects will crop up. Do not assume because it looks fine, that it is fine. Test everything, from the gas grill to the bathroom locks, from your telephone to every W.C. handle.

As Sandy proved to us and Odile to the Baja peninsula, Mother Nature takes no prisoners. However, good design can help prepare for such an onslaught, and a thorough design investigation afterward can cushion the devastating experience and depressing aftermath of cleaning up.

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