Disaster Recovery: Rebuilding a Home and a Life

June 20, 2022

Overall, catastrophes can happen anytime, whether it is a flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake or in my case, a wildfire. Our home was one of 1,084 that was destroyed in less than six hours in the Marshall Wildfire on Dec. 30, 2021. It consumed more than 6,000 acres because of fierce 100 mph winds, which can be common in this area of Colorado. We were lucky because the fire eventually stopped before it could have destroyed thousands more homes. This number doesn’t include the hundreds that were damaged mostly by smoke infiltration, which created its own challenges. Here are some personal lessons learned about disaster recovery.

Preparing for the Unimaginable
In my case, we had less than 20 minutes to escape with our three dogs, our two adult children, their significant others and their dogs in four cars. All we had were our clothes and our dogs’ leashes. We did not believe we needed to collect our important documents, as we had what we thought was a “fire-proof” safe, which was far from the truth. The safe’s door blew open, and our passports, birth certificates, social security cards, car titles, etc., were incinerated. In the future, we will have our hard-to-replace, valuable documents stored in a bank safe deposit box.


president Biden and homeowners

President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden show their support of the affected homeowners.

Insurance Tips
Many people thought they had sufficient insurance policies, only to find out that they were woefully underinsured in many ways. The insurance company will pay for temporary living expenses if you cannot reside in your home. We were lucky that the Marshall Fire was declared a national disaster area by President Biden, which allowed us to have 24 months of temporary living instead of the normal 12. In today’s market, a home cannot be rebuilt in 12 months. But even with 12 months, the amount of money your insurance company offers may be inadequate, depending on where you live. In many cases, there is also an upper threshold as to what they will pay, which can also be a challenge, especially if one is moving into an unfurnished home.

Many people had very high deductibles, as they falsely thought a disaster would never happen to them. It is better to pay for a lower deductible of $1,000 or $2,500. Many people never update their insurance policy out of neglect, or they don’t have time to talk with their agent.

Rebuilding Basics
Here in Colorado, the average cost to build is $320 per square foot above grade and $100 below. If one has a higher-quality home, obviously this can be much higher and does not include construction inflation, which for the time being is growing faster than other types of inflation. So next year, the cost for above-grade construction will be about $350 per square foot. There are unfortunate stories of people who purchased a home in Louisville within six months of the fire, only to find they were insured for about 50% of their home’s value. So have that discussion with your agent that you’ve been putting off, and then plan to talk with them at least once a year, preferably at the end of December. And don’t rely on their construction knowledge for your area – talk with reputable builders or your local home builders’ association to find out what they are typically charging in your area. You also have a separate line for items outside your home, usually landscaping, lawns and gardening. Make certain this is adequate for your home.

I also know of some of my neighbors who were well into the process of major home remodeling, some nearly finished. But they did not talk with their agent as the remodeling proceeded. They are now paying twice for what they just had done. As designers and contractors, we should look out for our clients and let them know that they too should be engaging with their insurance agent before, during and after the process to ensure adequate coverage.


disaster recovery

Document the Damage
As the smoke was approaching my home, I took time to do a narrated video with my smartphone. This was my saving grace, as many of my neighbors had to do an itemized inventory of their home, and all I had to was submit my video to our insurance adjuster. Simply record a video using your smartphone as you are going through your home and speak the items you are seeing. And don’t forget to include the garage and exterior of your home. And then either save it up in the cloud, place it in your safe deposit box or give to a friend or family member who does not live close to you. At the end of each year, do this again as you probably have added items to your home.

The Builder’s Perspective
In the aftermath of the fire, Tim Coonce, president of Niwot, Colo.-based Porchfront Homes, and Brett Steury, vice president and project manager of the firm, reached out to the local NAHB chapter, asking how they could be of assistance to the affected residents. In response, an industry consultant with whom they had previously worked put them in touch with us.

While Porchfront is primarily a new-construction builder, they did have experience rebuilding both fire- and flood-damaged properties in the Front Range, so they are knowledgeable about local conditions, like the complex soil makeup here. Right now, we are about to go into the construction document phase together. In addition to our house, they are working on 10 other homes that were destroyed by the fire.

Tim has some sound advice for homeowners who find themselves in such an unexpected a situation as we did.

“As in any business, there are nefarious characters out there,” he said, referring to the out-of-state opportunists who often gravitate to disaster areas, looking for work and to make a quick buck. “Do your homework on who you trust to rebuild your home. Get references and know who you’re dealing with.”

—By Louie Delaware, president and cofounder of The Living in Place Institute