The do’s and don’ts of flood recovery: Legal experts offer advice to those putting their lives back together

The Columbia area has been the scene of countless examples of selflessness during and after last week’s floods, with people locally and from far away reaching out to help others. Not every offer of help is sincere, however, and scams in the wake of a natural disaster are, in the words of one legal expert, “a cottage industry.”

The law firm of Adams and Reese has its home office in New Orleans and an office in Nashville as well as in Columbia. Its lawyers experienced the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and flooding in Nashville in 2010. The latter disaster was similar in many ways to Columbia’s recent experience, and the firm’s partners are offering advice on what people in the Columbia area “need to do immediately for their homes and businesses both to put themselves in a position both to recover as quickly as possible but also to recover from their loss financially as quickly as possible,” said Managing Partner Guilford Thornton.

Columbia Partner in Charge Rob Bethea said people’s natural inclination to clean up as quickly as possible can be a problem in the long run.

“There’s a lot of activity going on very quickly. Documenting everything that happened is so important,” he said. “You don’t want to end up cleaning out a business [or home] of all the damaged material without taking a very careful inventory of what was exactly damaged and taking lots of photographic evidence before you clean up.”

Bethea advised both business and home owners to “preserve any records, even if they’re damaged, sopping wet. Don’t throw it away.”

The road to recovery can be long and complex, and the dangers along the way include people who try to take advantage of victims.

“Be careful of strangers knocking on your door offering to adjust your claim, to assess your damage and for a percentage of whatever you recover” through your claim, Thornton said. “The companies don’t have enough employees to cover the ground immediately, so what you see is predators coming in usually from out of state. This is a cottage industry. They prey on the people who are vulnerable and in need.”

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott offered similar warnings. He said there have been reports of suspects going to homes claiming to be with various clean-up crews or the Federal Emergency Management Agency or claiming to be repairmen with the intent to be let onto the property where they then steal money or other items.

“Be very wary. If it is someone just coming up with a truck and a chainsaw, be careful,” Lott said. “If they’re asking for money upfront, that is a true indication right then that we’ve got a scam going on.”

He encouraged people to check with law enforcement if in doubt and to never to pay for work upfront.

“People need to be guarded against that,” Thornton said. “You don’t want to rush to bind yourself to an agreement that’s ultimately not going to be in your best interests.”

Bethea said at a time like this, people should be more diligent, not less, because of the presence of predators.

“People are entering into agreements with adjusters, with contractors, with people from outside our area. They’re not checking references. They’re not verifying proper licensing,” he said. “Those are mistakes that will come back to haunt people.”

Thornton said people should be wary of offers that sound too good to be true and should temper expectations even with legitimate offers of help.

“The experience we had with Katrina and others since then is that well-meaning federal government programs don’t always deliver the relief, the results you would dream they would,” he said. “Go into it with a realistic expectation. It’s a disaster and there isn’t necessarily relief out there that will make it all go away.”

Thornton said despite the dangers and destruction, there is hope.

“There’s good news in this for Columbia,” he said. “There will be funds that flow into the area to rebuild the city, and that will generate jobs and turn the economy.”

Thornton said New Orleans, 10 years after Katrina, is “so much more vibrant and vital. The economy is better than it was before the storm.”

“Sometimes these natural disasters can be a prelude to a really strong recovery,” he said.

Those in need of legal advice can contact Adams and Reese online. Lott asked anyone aware of scams to contact Crimestoppers.

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