- - Thursday, September 8, 2011

Washington-area residents are attuned to wild summer rainstorms and the occasional winter blizzard, but this summer they were tested twice within one week by more unusual natural disasters for the region: an earthquake and a hurricane.

While the immediate focus after any major event is to make sure family and friends are safe, once the electrical power is restored, homeowners should assess any damage that may have resulted from Mother Nature’s wrath.

“Usually any damage from a hurricane or a tornado can be seen visually, since high winds are going to cause tree limbs to fall and perhaps cause roof tiles to loosen or come off,” said Jesse Waltz, an engineer and owner of JES Foundation Repair in Manassas, Va.

“An earthquake may leave less obvious damage, so homeowners need to do a visual inspection of their home themselves and consider bringing in a professional if they find cracks or other damage that could signal structural damage.”

Mr. Waltz recommended examining the exterior of a home for cracks in brick, concrete or cinder blocks that were not visible before the earthquake, checking to see whether any bricks have fallen from the facade or the chimney and making sure the chimney is not leaning away from the house. Inside, he suggests checking for drywall cracks, uneven floors, windows or doors that stick and, in the basement, for columns that may be leaning.

“If you notice any of those things, you should call for professional help because your home may have some structural damage that needs repair,” Mr. Waltz said.

Joseph Walker, a home inspector and president of Claxton Walker & Associates in Annapolis, said the earthquake caused some damage in the Washington area, particularly to older brick buildings and to chimneys.

“The earthquake accelerated the aging process of some of the older homes in our area by about 50 years, so we’re going to see more loosened bricks and bending walls than we did before the earthquake,” Mr. Walker said.

Mr. Walker recommended using binoculars to check the chimney to see whether it separated from the home or whether any of the flashing pulled loose as a result of the earthquake or from high winds during Hurricane Irene.

“Homeowners should pay careful attention to long, horizontal cracks, especially if they are halfway up the basement wall or higher, because horizontal cracking doesn’t slow down,” Mr. Walker said. “Horizontal cracking just accelerates over time, while step-cracking from a vertical line becomes less of a problem and automatically slows down.”

Mr. Walker said homeowners should watch hairline cracks to make sure they don’t widen.

“Any crack bigger than one-fourth-inch wide should be checked out by a professional,” Mr. Walker said.

Brian Koepf, a home inspector and owner of Gatekeeper Inspections in Reston, said homeowners should walk around their property and check for cracks in the area where the ground meets the walls.

“Inside, homeowners should check around their windows and doors for cracks that can indicate if there was any structural damage,” Mr. Koepf said. “Symmetrical cracks are more significant than asymmetrical cracks. Homeowners may need to consult with an engineer, depending on the length and width of the crack, the number of cracks and the location.”

Mr. Walker said interior cracks from drywall or plaster loosening could require only cosmetic repair, but he suggests pushing on the plaster to determine whether it is loose and could come off the wall or ceiling. In that case, the plaster will need to be repaired.

In addition to contacting a structural engineer, homeowners can request home inspections to check for structural damage. If any damage needs repair, a home inspector can recommend a contractor.

Mr. Koepf said the pipes around water heaters also should be checked because they may have cracked or loosened during the earthquake.

There are several ways to repair structural damage.

“Sometimes you need a new wall, but sometimes you need to just monitor a crack to make sure it doesn’t get worse,” Mr. Waltz said. “Other times, you can use carbon fiber strips to repair a wall.”

The double events of the hurricane on the heels of the earthquake could have caused greater damage, particularly if a weakened foundation has become saturated with water from the hurricane’s rain, Mr. Walker said.

“Soaking-wet soil could exert more pressure on a foundation and cause further damage that was started by the earthquake, Mr. Walker said.

He said homeowners should check for missing roof shingles and damage to gutters and downspouts after heavy winds and make sure vinyl siding and roofing rake boards are not loose.

“The post-storm cleanup should include getting rid of the leaves in window wells and stairwells,” Mr. Walker said. “Homeowners in a community with overhead power lines should check to make sure the power lines coming into the house are not loosened. They also should check the caulk around their windows and doors in case it was damaged and needs to be replaced.”

Mr. Walker warns homeowners to be wary of scams related to storm damage.

“Scam artists often go around after bad storms and tell homeowners that they have hail damage to the roof or damage to their chimney,” Mr. Walker said. “While chimney damage does occur sometimes, it is very rare for hail to damage an asphalt shingle. I would recommend that people call someone for a second opinion before they pay to have their roof or their chimney repaired, particularly if they have been approached by someone coming to their home that they did not already hire.”

In addition to wind damage associated with a tornado or hurricane, water can have a significant impact on a home.

“If you have an area of your home like a finished basement that has been flooded, you need to get the water out and then you need to dry out the place completely,” Mr. Waltz said. “Drywall that has become saturated with water may need to be replaced because it can become a breeding ground for mold.”

A visual inspection of the inside and outside of their home should be routine after every major natural disaster or storm. Bringing in an engineer or a home inspector may not be necessary, but spending a little money to fix minor damage could end up saving thousands of dollars to prevent a major repair.

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