Damage from the recent winter storms and unusual freezing weather in at least 10 states has displaced more than 200 military families from their homes on installations and damaged the homes of many others, officials said.
And some families have expressed concerns about mold damage that could appear later as a result of the water damage from burst pipes, especially given the past experiences with mold in some military housing.
The severe winter storms knocked out power to millions of people from Texas to North Dakota and resulted in at least 86 deaths nationwide, according to the Associated Press. Some areas in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas had the coldest weather they’d seen in decades, according to weather.com. Most of the damage to military houses resulted from frozen and burst water pipes.
Service officials are still assessing the damage and conducting recovery operations. For example, housing project owners are still gathering information and have not yet notified the Air Force of the estimated costs to repair identified damage at this point, said Mark Kinkade, a spokesman for the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center. Four project owners reported storm-related housing damage at 15 installations, he said. Long-term repairs are now in progress. Facilities in Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas have been affected.
Originally, 78 residents were displaced from their homes on Air Force bases, mostly because of frozen and/or burst water lines, he said. As of March 1, 23 residents were still in temporary quarters. “Residents are returning to their homes as repairs are made and conditions improve,” he said.
Army officials also are still assessing the damage in the wake of winter storms that affected tens of thousands of service members and their families and caused closures or delays at 22 Army installations in the U.S., said Scott Malcom, spokesman for the Army Installation Management Command.
There were 138 families displaced from Army housing because of storm damage, with the vast majority from frozen pipes causing broken water lines, Malcom said. Eight of those were displaced because they had no heat. Of the 138 originally displaced, there are currently 100 still out of their homes, he said.
Hotels and hospitality suites have been offered to the displaced families, he said. In the meantime, contractors have been brought in to augment the privatized company landlords’ in-house teams to address repairs quickly.
Navy officials reported no families had been displaced at the Texas installations of Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Naval Air Station Kingsville or Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, said Coleen R. San Nicolas-Perez, a spokeswoman for Commander, Navy Installations Command. At Fort Worth, freezing levels caused burst water lines in eight homes, with minor damage. The privatized housing property maintenance team responded and made the necessary repairs, she said. The same situation occurred at NAS Kingsville, with one report of a burst water pipe, that was quickly addressed, she said.
Some families are asking questions about possible future mold problems, in the event the water is not cleaned up fast enough, and wet flooring and walls aren’t properly repaired. That remains to be seen, but tenants should report these issues immediately. At Fort Hood, for example, a mold and mildew addendum included in the residents’ lease asks residents to immediately report to Fort Hood Family Housing in writing or by calling the maintenance line, if they suspect moisture, mildew or mold in the home, said Stefanie Murphy, spokeswoman for Lendlease in the Americas.
The Air Force is ensuring that the housing privatization project owners “account for storm-related damage and execute timely repairs,” Kinkade said. Hunt Military Communities and Balfour Beatty Communities officials have brought in disaster relief contract support at some bases, he said.
There is no provision for any set-aside reimbursement to tenants in their Air Force privatized housing projects, Kinkade said, when asked about reimbursements for damage to personal property arising from possible future mold problems. “Project owners have responded to known issues thus far and should any additional issues arise in the future, those will have to be worked between tenant and landlord via normal work order procedures. We can’t speak for project owners in any generalized terms, as each project is different.”
However, project owners have been reporting back to the Air Force on storm-related damage, follow-up and displacements on a twice-weekly basis, and will continue until all residents displaced for repairs are returned to their homes, Kinkade said.
Fort Hood especially hard hit
In Fort Hood Family Housing, there were nearly 440 homes that experienced plumbing emergencies of varying degrees because of the storm, according to Lendlease’s Stefanie Murphy. “We supplemented our team with outside contractors who worked around the clock to restore heat, shut off water leaks and repair broken pipes.”
She said the landlord worked through a hotel room shortage in the area to provide temporary lodging for displaced residents, with priority given to those in homes with severe damage. “Deep gratitude to our partner IHG Army Hotels, who were indispensable through this weather event,” she said.
On March 1, Army Lt. Gen. Doug Gabram, commanding general of the Installation Management Command, traveled to Fort Hood to walk through damaged barracks and privatized homes, and talked to tenants and those who are working around the clock to make the repairs, Malcom said. In a quote provided to Military Times, Gabram said, “I am immensely proud of the work by our [Department of Public Works] teams, [privatized housing] partners, and utility providers to work round the clock to restore services and repair facilities.”
One concern is the houses at Fort Hood that have had mold problems in the past, said Courtney Hamilton, wife of a soldier stationed at Fort Hood. She’s afraid the effects of the storm will just worsen the problem, she said. One neighbor’s entire downstairs was flooded. “You could stick your finger through every single wall,” she said. She also took video of water pouring out of the house. The Hamiltons previously moved out of their house at Fort Hood because of mold problems, and are involved in litigation over the issue.
For the past two years, she’s been helping families resolve issues with their housing, she said.
“Accidents happen. Pipes burst, but the response is what counts,” she said. “It’s simple. The house floods. Cut the wet walls out,” she said. And move families to temporary lodging when needed.
“While this winter did affect civilian houses the same way [as it did houses on post], it’s the manner in which repairs and cleanup are handled,” she said. She noted that the home near her previous residence on post that flooded on Feb. 20 hadn’t been repaired as of March 3.
On the other hand, she has some concerns about what they’ll find when they do repairs. “I’m worried that when they go in and cut the walls, they’ll find extensive mold, similar to what has been found in some other homes in the same style. An exterior repair project is ongoing that’s meant to fix that issue with exterior flashing in 972 homes,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said there are also some concerns that residents may be held responsible for damages to the home. “With seeing some of the other [privatized housing companies] charging residents for repairs, there is always that concern.” She’s urged families to notify the housing company immediately in writing if there is a mold or water issue.
She said Fort Hood Family Housing officials have already made it clear they will not be responsible for personal property damage, which is the case with other landlords in the civilian and military communities.
At move-in, residents are informed —and asked to acknowledge — that Fort Hood Family Housing doesn’t provide renters insurance, to cover the renter’s personal belongings, in connection with their lease, Lendlease’s Murphy said.
But an unknown number of military families don’t have renters insurance, Hamilton said. “A lot of people don’t realize they need it, although it’s cheap, about $25 a month,” she said. Otherwise, damage to personal property is generally not covered by the landlord. Hamilton said she has passed along information to the families about filing claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Texas homeowners and renters in the counties that qualify for disaster relief can apply for programs such as financial assistance for temporary lodging and home repairs and low-interest loans to cover uninsured property losses. FEMA can’t duplicate benefits for losses covered by insurance, but if the insurance doesn’t cover all the damage, FEMA may provide federal assistance. Renters and homeowners can apply by visiting www.disasterassistance.gov.
Another recourse is for tenants to file a claim with the Army for personal property damage incident to their service, under the Personnel Claims Act, said Malcom, the Army’s installation management command spokesman. Payment of that claim is subject to legal requirements, and the adjudication process outlined in Army regulations.
Sheppard families relieved to get help
According to one Air Force spouse who is very involved with the families on base at Sheppard Air Force Base, the families who suffered damage there are being taken care of. “What I’ve been advised is, that everyone who was displaced has been moved back home, or to a different house while repairs are being made,” said Tiffany Kelley, president of the Sheppard spouses club.
She’s checked in with some of the families who were displaced, and their situations are much better than they were a week earlier, she said, as they’ve been moved to other houses while remediation work is being done.
Kelley attributes much of the families’ experience to their new housing resident advocate, who started there last fall. Residents now have a liaison who ensures their voices are heard when they aren’t able to get issues resolved with Balfour Beatty Communities, the landlord, she said. That wasn’t always the case before this housing advocate came on board, she said, noting her own family’s previous struggle to get their roof leak fixed in their privatized housing.
Most of the damage from this storm was due to water, from burst pipes. Installation housing didn’t lose power, she said. Lodging at the base opened up some rooms for displaced personnel and their families, and squadrons stepped up to bring needed items from local stores to families. Leadership acted quickly to resolve issues, she said.
There haven’t been a lot of complaints, Kelley said, and there haven’t been questions raised surrounding concerns about future possibilities of mold resulting from water damage.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.