Jack Wheeler and his wife, Tami Wheeler, watch as a FEMA housing inspector measures their flooded home in 2008 in Oakville, Iowa.
Jack Wheeler and his wife, Tami Wheeler, watch as a FEMA housing inspector measures their flooded home in 2008 in Oakville, Iowa. - 
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After a disaster in the U.S., some of the first people on the ground work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It offers shelters and assistance, of course, but FEMA also contracts with companies to send inspectors into people's homes to figure out how bad the damage is.

Jack Fryday was one of those inspectors, working in the aftermath of several big storms early in the decade and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Marketplace Weekend host Lizzie O'Leary called up Fryday at his home in Texas. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

What's the first thing you do when you arrive at a home?

Well, the first thing when you walk up to it, you drive your car or truck up to this house, you're scanning the whole area, looking at the next-door neighbors, and you're just looking at everybody. And just looking at the house in general to see what's, you know, what's there. And we've already made an appointment with the homeowner, so they're in the house if you can get in the house, or they're waiting outside in their car. Whatever. But when you drive up to the house, first of all, after being over there for about 30 minutes, every house looks the same. You drive down the streets. You've got all of the contents of the house out on the street curb, and all of the houses, you know, look virtually the same. If they had a tornado go through, they're all torn-up roofs, etc. If they just had wind or rising water, then they all look the same. So it's no different from one house to the other, once you get into that subdivision.

So when you would walk into a house, what were you looking for? What were you assessing?

Well, you walk in there with your camera and your notepad, and you just do an overall general assessment of it. And then you meet with the owners and get all of the paperwork out of the way, and then you just start room by room, looking at detail by detail. You take pictures of every room, all the damage that's done. I write up, you know, "X number of feet of Wet carpet. Kitchen cabinets damaged. Furniture is damaged." You just write up everything that you see: windows broken out. Ceiling caved in. Feet rock wet. Just whatever you see.

What do people need to have when they know that you're coming?

Well, the most important thing they have to have is, I've got to have documentation that they own the property. That's the main documentation I'm looking for, is proof that they own the property. And that becomes a challenge for some of them.

What did you do when people didn't have the paperwork? If they they couldn't prove that they owned the home? After all, a lot of people lose their paperwork in a storm.

Well, there's not much for me to do. I actually ran into one family in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, where I was during Katrina. And in one home I went to, an older house, there was a young couple in there. And the first thing I said was, "You know, I need to see proof of your ownership of the house. Do you have a deed?" And they said, "No sir. We just live here." And to make a long story short, the house belonged to their grandfather who passed away, and then one of the family members just moved into it. And then they passed away and another family moved into it. Nobody knows where the deed is. So there was nothing I could do there.

What happens to a family in a situation like that?

I really don't know. I don't know if they go to other people for help, but I don't know what they did from there.

After a FEMA inspector does their work, then often the insurance company, if you've got insurance, the adjusters step in, and they move on from there. How does the government and the insurance company work together at that point?

The insurance companies are going to send adjusters out. And FEMA sends adjusters out, too. I'm not an adjuster, I'm just inspecting to see what's there. The adjusters go in and really look at the detail stuff and assign dollar values to it, and that sort of thing. And so the FEMA adjusters, they work for FEMA, but they are the insurance adjusters. And they come out, and go to each house and meet with the family and actually look at the house, item by item. Measure rooms. Got this many square feet of carpet in this room. They've got these windows broken out. They got this or that. They document everything meticulously. And then they send that all to their company, and the company then puts a dollar value to it.

You are out of this line of work right now, but, you know there are people who are listening to this, who may have been affected or could be affected by a disaster in the future. What would you tell them to do? What advice would you give them?

The first thing you want to do is pay attention to your adjuster. If you don't think the adjuster is doing what he should do, or writing up everything, and you're not happy with what his deal is, you can, of course, protest back to the company, but the best thing for you to do is to hire a public adjuster. A public adjuster is somebody that's licensed to do adjusting. He works for you. He does not work for an insurance company, and they will charge you a percentage of what [you] get. But since they're on commission, they're going to get everything they can. They're going to look at everything in there and really do you a good job. So I would recommend to anybody who is not satisfied with the adjuster that they got from the insurance company, look into hiring yourself a public adjuster. 

To hear to full interview, use the media player above.

 

Follow Lizzie O'Leary at @lizzieohreally