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How to Clean Your House After a Massive Flood

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How to Clean Your House After a Massive Flood

By: Adam M. Matheny

What to Do if Your House is Damaged

In 2019, tens of millions of Americans learned first-hand how catastrophic floods can be. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from January to October, the overall estimated damages caused by major thunderstorms and flooding in the U.S. totaled over $180 billion.

If you have flood insurance, the first then you need to do is file a claim. You have 60 days to send in a proof of loos form that documents all the contents in your house.

Enesta Jones, a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says that any home or location that has been flooded needs to officially be deemed safe — with no structural, electrical, or other hazards lurking. Call your local fire and police departments, as well as your gas company, to confirm. As anxious as you are to get in and start cleaning, you cannot skip this step.

Because high winds and flood waters are known to down power lines, and the fast flow of water can erode the ground surrounding buried utilities causing potential breaks in gas mains, make sure to check for the smell of gas outside your house. Keep watch for any dangling power lines, and call your local gas or electric company (or police and fire) if you see any of this evidence around your property.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says that bringing in a building inspector or structural engineer is necessary when you find structural damage outside of the house, like cracks or shifting in the foundation.

It’s critical to check for structural damage and gas leaks inside the home, too. Once in, if you smell gas, turn off the main gas valve immediately. Call 911 and your gas company to report the leak.

If at any moment you feel that you’re in over your head, your encouraged to call the professionals. The EPA recommends several organizations that can help:

  • The Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC)
  • The National Environmental Health Association
  • The American Council for Accredited Certification
  • The American Industrial Hygiene Association

When and if you’re certain your home is structurally sound and it’s safe to go in, there are certain steps to follow as you begin to clean out your house.

1: Wear Protective Gear

It’s not just water you have to worry about — the rush of flood water carries with it all the nasty stuff lingering at the bottom of storm drains, sewer lines, and ditches. As the water recedes, your home could be left with all these toxic substances.

“Mold can cause resipiratory distress and can exacerbate asthma,” says Kellogg Schwab, Ph.D. and Abel Wolman Professor in Water and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Operate under the assumption that mold is present, and take necessary precautions.

Wear clothing that fully covers your arms and legs. Wear goggles tight enough to keep dust and tiny particles out of your eyes, and long, tight fitting gloves made of rubber or neoprene. The EPA recommends wearing an N95 respirator if you can get one.

Lastly, do not let anyone with a compromised immune system in the house: mold, sewage, and cleaning chemicals can make them even sicker.

2: Dry Your Home Out Quickly

The first step in getting rid of mold is to air the house out. If you have power, turn on your AC, a dehumidifier, and every fan you own. If using AC and a dehumidifier, keep the windows closed to help air circulate inside to get rid of excess moisture. If fans are all you have, then open the windows and face the fan exhaust toward them.

If your without power and own a portable generator, you can do the steps above. Keep in mind that you need to run the generator outdoors because they emit dangerous carbon monoxide.

If you don’t have a generator or can’t rent one, then open all your windows and doors to create airflow.

3: Monitor Moisture Levels

You can get a humidity meter for about $15 and a moisture meter for $50 at most hardware stores. These are good tools to have because floors, walls, and furniture that’s dry to the touch may not actually be. Shoot for levels between 30%-50% humidity in order to halt the growth of mold and bacteria.

4: Clear Away Debris

The IICRC recommends using shovels and rakes to remove wet silt and other debris from your house, and to dispose of it a safe distance away on or off your property. Make sure to wear your respirator and other protective gear while you work.

If you have local flood insurance, call your insurance company about all the documentation you’ll need to back up your claim. As an example, you may need to save swatches of carpet, flooring, or the walls. Take plenty of photos to document the extent of damage.

Anything that can’t be cleaned and dried within 24-48 hours needs to be discarded, according to the CDC. The likelihood of these things harboring mold and bacteria are high, and thusly can’t be saved. Talk to your local sanitation department on how to dispose of large household items.

After every cleaning session, thoroughly clean and sanitize your clothes, shoes, and clean your tools with bleach after using them.

5: Removing Damaged Drywall

If more than 10 square feet of your drywall holds water damage, the EPA strongly recommends hiring a contractor experienced with water damage. Areas smaller than that can be dealt with yourself by cutting the drywall 15 to 24 inches above the visible waterline. You’ll need to remove any damp insulation behind the drywall, too. Nonporous areas like metal and glass can be cleaned with water and detergent, then sanitized with bleach.

Do not re-seal any walls with new insulation and drywall until everything is completely dried out.

6: Removing Flooring

They might appear dry at first sight, but moisture and silt can collect underneath the flooring and slide between the cracks, causing mold and bacteria to grow. This includes ceramic tile, sheet vinyl, laminate, and even solid wood floors.

Once the flooring has been removed, make sure everything is dry and clean before installing fresh flooring. The afore-mentioned moisture and humidity meters will be helpful here. The subflooring should be at or below 16% moisture (13% or less for wood flooring).

Be patient — it could take a few weeks for your floor to return to a reasonable moisture level. If at any time you’re unsure about how to handle flooring, a local contractor or home inspector can help.

7: Check Countertops and Appliances

Because their components could be corroded or damaged by the flood, do not plug in your appliances right away. Any appliances that have been submerged in flood water should be discarded to be safe. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to ditch the appliances, call on a professional repair person to inspect them.

If there is no visible mold or debris on your appliances, the CDC recommends using a solution of 1 cup bleach to 5 gallons of water to clean the nonporous surfaces of your washer, dryer, dishwasher, fridge, etc.

The time after a flood is as overwhelming as the act of nature itself, so never be afraid to call for professional help at any point in the cleanup process.

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