As the water from the catastrophic floods finally begins to recede, the financial, emotional and physical toll on impacted individuals and communities has revealed itself in a startling and heartbreaking way.
We’re blessed to live in a country where, without fail, these incidents bring out the best in people. We’ve seen and heard countless stories over the past weeks about people demonstrating incredible kindness and generosity — inspiring examples of what it means to be a good neighbor and to be our brother’s keeper.
Unfortunately, these events also bring out people who choose to take advantage of the survivors. Whether it’s a hurricane, a flood, a hailstorm or a tornado, local BBBs across the country can count on receiving loads of complaints about contractors who have traveled from out of state to a disaster area in an attempt to take advantage of very vulnerable consumers.
All too often, some of the first people on the scene are the last people you want around. Traveling contractors, sometimes referred to as “storm chasers,” use high-pressure tactics and often require upfront payments. Although not all travelers are problematic, doing business with repair firms that are not from our area should be done cautiously.
BBB certainly sees its fair share of really bad actors that request upfront payments and don’t start or complete projects, but the lion’s share of complaints related to these firms stem from issues that emerge after repairs have been made. Year after year, consumers report that the contractors they hired and who promised they would be available for warranty work are nowhere to be found.
And why would they be? Sticking around to take care of customers just doesn’t fit into their business model.
That’s why all of our alerts and warnings implore victims to use local, well-established firms for repairs if possible. There are legitimate and reputable repair and restoration firms that travel the country responding to disasters such as the one we are experiencing. As long as they are transparent about the nature of their business, and flood victims are able to determine the firm has a solid track record with BBB and is properly licensed and insured, they may be a viable option to consider.
It’s astonishing how quickly these itinerant repair contractors can mobilize once they’ve gotten wind of a disaster. This has always been a source of heartburn for our team at the BBB, and the ability to get our warnings about traveling repair firms into the hands of victims before they arrive has been on our wish list for years.
Several years ago, we were having a discussion with our friends at the Red Cross about how their volunteers might be able to assist us in distributing BBB tips on managing repairs to disaster survivors, because their organization is often first on the scene. They graciously introduced us to a remarkable group called VOAD, which stands for Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.
This group was founded more than 40 years ago in response to the challenges many disaster organizations experienced following Hurricane Camille, a Category 5 storm that hit the Gulf Coast in August 1969.
Up until that time, numerous governmental, private-sector and nonprofit organizations served disaster survivors independently. As a result, help came to the survivors haphazardly.
Unnecessary duplication of effort often occurred, and access to information on services available to survivors during disasters was woefully inadequate. Likewise, communication among voluntary disaster agencies and coordination of services were negligible. In fact, mechanisms for this were nonexistent.
In 1970, seven national disaster response organizations convened for the first time to find a way to better coordinate responses and more effectively serve disaster survivors and their communities. As a result, National VOAD was formed as a forum for sharing knowledge and coordinating resources — money, materials and manpower.
There are now VOADs in all 50 states, and I’m proud to say that our BBB is partnered with the Nebraska chapter.
When we sat down to talk to the Nebraska VOAD group about our concerns regarding the predators that take advantage of home and business owners with damaged property, they had only one question for us: How can BBB help?
With VOAD’s assistance, the BBB has developed a booklet that VOAD volunteers have agreed to distribute that will help survivors of disasters rebuild their homes, businesses, towns and lives without the fear of being scammed.
The booklet, “ReBUILD with TRUST,” provides vital information about how to hire contractors, how to manage insurance claims and disputes and how to check on charitable organizations before accepting aid or making donations.
It provides detailed warnings that should prevent victims from falling prey to disreputable contractors and specifies the qualities of trustworthy businesses by educating victims on BBB’s Standards for Trust. Trust takes years to build and it can be lost in a minute. These standards summarize the important elements of a good business.
The digital version of the booklet is posted on the homepage of BBB’s website at bbbinc.org and has been formatted for easy viewing on mobile devices, laptops and tablets at www.bureaunews.org/disaster_landing.html.
Let me end with the largest possible shout out to everyone involved in the extraordinary response to this disaster. Thank you for all that you’ve done to render aid to those whose lives have been turned upside down without warning. You know who you are, and you are our heroes.
Jim Hegarty is the president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving Nebraska, South Dakota, the Kansas Plains and southwest Iowa.