Use great caution when entering a building damaged by high winds, flooding and tornados. Be sure that walls, ceiling, and roof are in place and that the structure rests firmly on its foundation. Look out for broken glass and downed power lines.
Before You Enter
Damage to homes may be obvious, but damage that is not clearly visible may cause problems as well. Make sure the building is not in danger of collapsing. Look for bulges, sways, leaning walls and sagging rooflines.
The roof is a very good indicator of the possible structural damage. From a distance, look at the ridge of the roof and determine whether it is straight. If the ridge sags either in the center or at the ends, the load-bearing walls may have shifted.
From the exterior, either visually or with a carpenter's level, check the walls to verify that they are vertical and straight.
Whether a home is on a slab on grade or a basement foundation, closely check where the structure meets its foundation. The building may have shifted on its foundation. Flooded wooden floors, if they do not buckle, will sometimes push walls outward at the base.
Check for cracks in masonry exteriors of the building. Look near the corners of the structures and under and around doors and windows.
If there are any indications of structural damage, call a structural engineer, architect or an experienced building contractor with expertise in structure damage. Even if you do not observe structural damage, it is advised to contact a professional to examine the house for damage that may not be easily visible.
Turn off or have professionals turn off any outside gas lines at the meter or tank, and let the home air to remove any escaping gas and odors. Turn off or have the utility company turn off the main electrical breaker until safe conditions are established. If the main disconnect is inside, contact the utility company for assistance. Enter cautiously. Do not smoke or use a flame as a light source. Even if the power is out in your neighborhood, disconnect the main switch, fuses or circuit breakers at your home, and disconnect all circuits. Follow safe procedures or have professionals disconnect the switch, breakers and circuits. Unplug all appliances that have been flooded.
Check the roof for missing or damaged shingles and loose nails. Examine the roof for potential leaks that could indicate structural separation. This is more easily checked for on sunny days. Binoculars can be used to safely identify specific problem areas from the ground or from a second story window or dormer area. Inspect the foundation to make sure that joints where the foundation and wall meet haven't separated. On stone or concrete foundations, check to see that plate bolts are not loose.
On The Inside
If you are sure the building is safe to enter and the utilities are off, inspect the interior of buildings for structural damage. If you are not sure, contact a professional structural engineer, architect, housing inspector or building contractor with expertise and experience in damaged structures.
Check for sagging ceilings; wet insulation and pockets of water that can cause ceilings or walls to fall. Using a good light, check the framing. Look for ridge separation, loose knee braces, and loose rafters where the rafters join the walls.
Damage to structures may not be obvious, but the damage could cause problems. Look for wood structural members that are cracked. Structural bracing may not be as secure as the original. If doors and windows do not open as they did prior to the storm, this may indicate the structure has shifted. In case of severe shifting, water lines, gas, lines, and electrical circuits may have been damaged.
Roof truss systems should be carefully inspected. In many cases, truss systems are constructed of 2 x 4s and metal fasteners and hurricane clips. Any crack or break in the truss with greatly affect the strength of the truss system.
If there are indicators of structural damage, contact a structural engineer, architect or skilled building contractor. A professional needs to further assess the building for its safety and determine the required repairs. These indicators should be pointed out to the insurance adjusters.
After the utility systems, equipment and appliances have been checked, repaired and tested again by professionals, you may be entering the home for the first time with utilities on. Check for gas leaks. If you smell gas or hear a blowing or hissing noise, open a window and quickly leave the building. Turn off the gas at the outside main valve if you can and call the gas company from a neighbor's home. If you turn off the gas for any reason, a professional must turn it back on.
Look for electrical system damage. If you see sparks or broken or frayed wires, or if you smell hot insulation, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. Do not step in water or damp areas to get to the fuse box or circuit breaker; call an electrician for advice. IF water is present, call an electrician or the utility company; do not try to turn off the power yourself.
Check for sewage and water line damage. If you think sewage lines are damaged, avoid using toilets and call a plumber. If water pipes are damaged, contact the water company and avoid using tap water. Make sure your water is safe to drink before drinking it and using for foods.Sources: Shirley Niemeyer, Extension Specialist, housing and environment, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, IANR, Louisiana State University, Florida State University, and North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension