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What if Disaster Struck Your Church?
By: Eric Johnson

When a church plans for a new building project, a remodel, or an addition, committees are formed, studies are done, and planning goes on for many months, or years, before any actual work is done.  On the contrary, when a disaster strikes, there is literally no time for any planning.  Church leaders are forced to make decisions on the fly, with little knowledge of the consequences of their decisions. 

If you had a sudden pipe break late on a Saturday afternoon that flooded your church sanctuary, would you know who to call?  Do you have the emergency phone numbers (and cell phone) for your local restoration contractor stored in your cell phone's data base?  Could you contact them at 7:00 PM on a Saturday night, have their crew work all night to enable your church services to proceed on Sunday morning like nothing had ever happened?  If not, it would be good to do some research now, get to know these people, and let them help you be prepared for a disaster,  just in case. Having a contractor pre-approved by your insurance company can be a huge stress reliever in times of real stress. 

Stressful for the entire congregation

As a construction company specializing in helping churches recover from disaster, we see lots of examples of churches getting hit unprepared.  

The loss of a church building is a shock to a congregation.  Most major life events happen within the church, so there is a personal loss to the members.  Lifelong members have not only personal memories, but a financial investment in the building structure.  Losing a church building is very emotional, and there is a grieving process involved in the recovery.  This is when communication from the church leadership is very important.  It is important that the pastoral staff is spending full time in ministry to the congregation, and not tied up in major decisions about the building or contents.  Church members need to feel that communication goes both ways, they need to be heard, as well as be informed as to what is going on. 

This is why it is critical that you are able to run out and buy the necessary replacement computers, load up your backup information, and be back in business communicating with your congregation as soon as possible. 

Another common occurrence around disasters, are opportunists and "fire chasers".  They converge on disasters like a bunch of vultures, distracting the attention of the church leadership, each trying to get a piece of the action and your insurance money.  This can be a very stressful time for the church leadership.  It is important to hire some experts, but it can be very hard to hire the right ones, when all you have is their "story" and fancy brochures to make a decision.  Some of these companies can be very expensive, and their sole purpose is to get a piece of your insurance money.  Others are legitimate contractors, very good at what they do, and necessary to help your church recover.  It is hard to tell the difference when 10 different people are giving you advice to hire their firm.  It is also difficult for the good contractors to distinguish themselves, when your church leadership is distracted by all the fire chasers. 

OK, it happened, now what?

When we arrive on site, usually within a day or two of the disaster, there is frequently considerable chaos.  After a quick review of the damage, we try to set up a meeting with the church leadership.  We want all to agree on a priority list of what is important now, and what can be dealt with later.  We also want the insurance adjuster to be part of that meeting to go over policy coverage issues, procedures for reimbursement, etc.  Every disaster is different, but there is a procedure we try to follow whenever we're called in. 

First, we want to make sure that the site is secure, and no further damage is occurring.  Safety is a big concern, as there may be unsafe conditions within the building.  Church members tend to take ownership, and want to go inspect the damage because they've always had full access, and expect it now, without concern for their own safety.  Yellow ribbons are never enough.  If the building cannot be locked and secured, we frequently will provide a 6' high chain link fence.  Signage is important to notify the public that portions of the building may be unsafe. 

Our second question to the church leadership, is, "Where are we going to have worship services on Sunday?"  What can we do with the facilities that are remaining, to continue some semblance of normal operations?  If the sanctuary is destroyed, can the fellowship hall be cleaned up and set up for a church service?

Next, we want to know if there are valuable contents that need to be rescued.  In the case of a flood, we are concerned about mold.  Important books and fabrics need to be removed and dried promptly, as mold will quickly destroy them.  A flood brings in all sorts of contaminates, so this is not a job for amateurs.  With fires, smoke and soot contains acids that over time will etch and destroy ornamental metals and glass.  So it is important to get those items properly and professionally cleaned as soon as possible.  Electronics should not be started until they have been taken apart and cleaned by a professional.  Smoke contaminates contain carbon which will corrode and destroy electrical contacts if not cleaned before use. 

Before anyone does any major cleanup, we need to know if there are any hazardous materials present, such as asbestos or lead, both very common in older churches.  The church and the insurance company need to protect themselves from liability by taking proper precautions to insure worker safety.  We will normally ask an environmental expert to take samples of suspect materials and give us both a verbal and written report as to the presence of any hazardous materials. 

If there appear to be any structural issues that 1) could be a safety hazard, or 2) need to be addressed as part of the rebuild, we will normally bring in a forensic structural engineer to evaluate and give us a report for safety, for insurance records, and to provide a design for the repair. 

Line up resources in advance

It would be good to have predetermined who you would use as your restoration contractor, if a disaster happened in your church.  Talk to these people now, get references, and recommendations, and pricing information.  Talk to your insurance agent for a recommendation.  If a decision is made prior to the loss, and a pricing structure is pre-established, then a huge burden is lifted from your church leadership.  That contractor would simply show up and start work, coordinating priorities with you and your insurance adjuster.  All the other fire chasers would go away, and relieve your church leadership of a huge source of stress and wasted time.

Documenting the damage

One of our major jobs as a consultant for an insurance company, is to document the damage and prepare a plan for restoration.  Since our specialty is the repair of the building structure, we usually coordinate contents handling with a local restoration contractor, either one selected by the church, or the insurance company, or by us.  Some insurance companies have us coordinate the contents handling to make sure it gets done promptly and properly and is priced correctly.  Contents need to get out of the way before work can start on the building itself. 

Then we begin a detailed study of each and every room in the building.  What is damaged?  What needs to be done to repair it?  And eventually, what will it cost?  We measure each room, including walls, offsets, and ceiling height.  In the proper sequence, we also measure doors, windows, cabinetry, countertops and shelving.  We study every detail of the room in a consistent order, starting with floors, then baseboard, then walls, then ceiling, then doors, windows, cabinets, countertop, shelves, trim and any other accessories.  Then we study the mechanical, plumbing and HVAC, and then electrical.  We repeat this process for every room in the building that has damage. 

In every case, we document what was there, and what needs to be done to restore it to the condition it was in prior to the disaster event.  This might be as simple as cleaning, or may involve remove and reinstall, seal and paint, or complete replacement.  From our notes, we will prepare a detailed written list, room by room, as to what needs to be done to repair the building structure.  We call this document a Scope of Loss.  This Scope of Loss goes to the insurance adjuster, and to the church for review, corrections, and additions.  Sometimes, if a room is completely destroyed, we need input from church members as to what was there before the event.  If the church has this information readily available, it is a huge help. 

Insurance doesn't automatically buy you a new church

As soon as the Scope of Loss is complete, our estimators start a detailed cost estimate.  The insurance company is usually paying us to do this cost estimate, which we provide to them for their use in settling the insurance claim.  Procedures vary with each insurance company, and laws vary from state to state.  But usually, after the estimate is submitted, a check is written for the depreciated amount of the cost estimate.  This is called ACV, or Actual Cash Value.  A second check is written after the church has repaired or replaced the building and is based on the actual cost incurred, or RCP, Replacement Cost up to the amount of the insurance policy. 

Whatever cost estimate is presented to you by the adjuster is just an estimate, not the final actual cost.  Actual cost is determined by several factors. Items will be discovered and clarified during demolition in areas that are not currently visible that will relate to the extent of cleaning, sealing, or rebuild.  We will attempt to get 3 bids on every specialty trade.  By doing this at the trade level it allows for the most competitive pricing for the work.  The price of the lowest qualified bidder in each trade determines your actual cost.  The bidding process is handled by us.  Insurance will pay for the actual cost incurred, no more, no less, within the parameters outlined in your policy. 

As you can see, this process is a lot more detailed and extensive, than simply providing an estimate by a contractor that may or may not be doing the work for you in the future.  For these reasons, we recommend bringing a disaster recovery expert on board as a part of your team, sooner, rather than later, to begin the process of securing actual bid costs that will solidify your position for the ultimate rebuild of your facility and the final claim settlement on your policy.  A group such as this can take a lot of the worry and pain out of the process, helping your church achieve a complete recovery. 

A disaster can be a very stressful event for a church congregation.  Being prepared in advance may be one of the most important things you do to eliminate most of that stress, and keep your church on the right path to a quick and full recovery. 

Eric Johnson is vice president of GC3 Builders, www.gc3builders.com. He is a construction expert who specializes in insurance restoration of damaged churches. As a senior project manager with a life long career in construction, he has spent the last 14 years helping churches recover from disaster. 

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