10 Tips From a Legal Perspective on Rebuilding Efforts Following a Hurricane 

Damages caused by Hurricane Ida will once again force the construction, manufacturing, energy, agribusiness, retail, and travel industries to focus on best practices for responding to major events. According to Eric Ruzicka, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney and an expert who has advised companies during the rebuilding following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, now is the time to put an effective recovery plan into action. 
Such a plan should seek to minimize, to the extent possible, out-of-pocket costs related to hurricane damage and subsequent recovery efforts. But it should also maximize the ability to transfer the risk of hurricane damage and subsequent recovery efforts to others, he said. Ruzicka provides 10 tips companies should pay attention to as they embark on rebuilding plans. 
  1. “Crisis Management” Mode. If you have a crisis management plan, now is the time to implement and follow it.
  2. Speak With An Informed and Unified Voice. Designate key individuals/consultants for specific tasks. It will be important to speak with one coordinated voice to various project constituents, including owners/general contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, vendors, sureties, lenders, insurers, and employees. Consider identifying specific individuals or consultants who are subject matter experts to serve as your company’s voice for a particular subject (for example, identifying one or two people to understand the potential insurance coverage and to be the point of contact for claims adjusters). For all participants, accurate, consistent, coordinated, and timely communication is essential to further the best interests of the project.
  3. Contractual Rights and Responsibilities. Review the project contracts, with a particular focus on any force majeure clause, to determine potential rights and responsibilities. In assessing the force majeure clause, pay particular attention to what type of recovery the clause provides (e.g., schedule relief only or schedule and monetary relief) and any notice requirements. Contractual notice requirements for force majeure events are often short, so do not delay – even if you can only provide a basic notice. Also, do not rely upon oral notice; put it in writing.
  4. Insurance. Review your insurance portfolio. The most likely sources for insurance coverage for construction projects damaged by Harvey and Irma will be builder’s risk insurance, property insurance, and marine cargo insurance. Other potential sources of insurance coverage, depending on the circumstances, include professional errors and omissions insurance, commercial general liability insurance, and subcontractor default insurance. Of course, the existence and extent of coverage will depend on the language of the policy, so it is important to gather the policies together and review the terms of each in order to maximize potential recovery. And, in order to effectively use the insurance your company has purchased, it is critical to comply with all notice requirements and to keep the insurers informed throughout the recovery process (especially when it comes to having the opportunity to view the damage prior to mitigation or recovery efforts). Here, in particular, having one or two (coordinated) point persons to deal with insurance issues, claims adjusters, and investigations will reduce potential issues and the inefficient use of people’s time and efforts.
  5. (More) Notice. Provide notice to sureties or lenders, if needed. This will avoid late notice, waiver, or similar defenses down the road.
  6. Document, Document, Document. Document the costs and schedule delays you have incurred. For both force majeure and insurance claims, this is critical. Good documentation maximizes claim recovery and minimizes costly after-the-fact reconstruction of costs. Consider creating hurricane-specific cost codes, including cost codes that correlate to any sub-limited categories of insurance recovery. (For example, most business risk and property policies have categories of costs that, while covered, are subject to sub-limits, such as business interruption, debris removal, expediting expenses, off-site storage, pollution clean-up and removal, soft costs/delay-in-completion costs, etc.) But, if you create such cost codes, use them accurately, or the effort might do more harm than good.
  7. Consider Your Subs and Suppliers. Check-in with subcontractors, suppliers, and vendors to determine how much they have been affected by the hurricane. Coordinate force majeure or insurance claims as appropriate (considering whether a subcontractor, in particular, has a back-to-back force majeure clause with the upstream contractor). Address any supply chain issues that may arise due to the hurricane, including delay claims and the inability of suppliers to satisfy delivery deadlines or changes in quantities of supplies.
  8. Interim or Fast Funding. Consider whether there may be a potential to negotiate a funding agreement or interim payment with affected project participants/insurers to provide an immediate source of funds to commence hurricane recovery and avoid, at least in the short term, disputes regarding what the hurricane and the recovery efforts caused the damage/delay. If you are looking to negotiate such an arrangement with an insurer, you need to keep the deductible in mind (as it is often a big cost, especially on a builders risk claim), as well as whether there is any contractual provision as to which party is responsible for the deductible.
  9. After-Effects. Consider the after-effects of Ida on things such as manpower and licensing. You will not be the only company looking for construction workers, and the cost of the job is likely going to rise because of higher wages and per diem expenses. Communication about this issue between owners, contractors, suppliers, etc., will be critical to laying the foundation to work together to address the problem effectively. And, the delay in construction that will likely be felt may require an extension of professional licenses to comply with applicable laws and regulations through the end of your work on a project.
  10. Words Matter. Although you are working in crisis mode, with the ultimate goal of getting back up and running as quickly as possible, the fact is that what you say now, in the heat of getting work done with perhaps not enough information, matters a lot. Project participants and other interested parties (such as insurers) are listening to what you say now about issues such as what has been damaged, how it was damaged, how much it is going to cost to get back up and running, and how long you are going to be delayed. What you say now will set certain expectations at all levels of the project, and those expectations might be difficult to overcome if, down the road, your estimates prove to be low. And, particularly with respect to insurance recovery, how you frame an issue or a particular cost can affect whether there is full coverage, partial coverage, or no coverage at all. Take care in what you are saying and whether you have the knowledge at a particular point in time to say anything. Communication is key, but accurate as well as timely and consistent communication is what is going to be most effective in recovery and damage mitigation efforts,” Ruzicka says. 

Eric Ruzicka is a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney and a commercial litigator who specializes in the area of construction litigation. He advised companies during the rebuilding following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and he was one of the attorneys that represented a major engineering firm in lawsuits that resulted from the I-35W Bridge Collapse in 2007. Ruzicka has been litigating complex commercial matters for more than two decades in a wide range of areas. He can be reached at [email protected].