Regardless of how well prepared for a disaster any homeowner may be, floods can appear in an instant, washing away lifetimes of memories and creating hazardous living conditions in their wake. What remains can be so unpredictable that sometimes the danger after a flood can be hidden in plain sight. With more than 10 years of experience helping homeowners after a flood, including in eastern Kentucky in 2022, Team Rubicon and its volunteers—or Greyshirts—have learned a thing or two about how to begin recovering from a flood, and how to do it safely. Here are seven tips on how to safely begin both the muck out and recovery process after a flood.
Conduct a Safety Check After a Flood but Before Beginning Clean Up
Even before checking on their property, homeowners should ensure it’s safe to return. Stay tuned to emergency channels and do not go back until authorities have declared it safe. Don’t enter any active disaster area and heed all warning signs and road closures. If emergency vehicles are in the area, stay out: you don’t obstruct rescue or disaster-related operations.
Drivers should also take heed: just 6 inches of water can cause a driver lose control, and flooded roads also often conceal severe damage, including erosion, deep holes, sharp objects, or even toxins or chemicals.
Also, check with the local utility company about safety in your area and when service will be restored. Apps or other automated systems may also be available to provide updates.
Do an Exterior Assessment
Small signs often point to big problems, so before even entering a home inspect the outside of the structure. (Having battery-powered flashlights on hand can help with this.) During that inspection, look for sagging roofs or struts, bent or crooked walls or window frames, missing or cracked support columns, holes or cracks in the walls, or any indication that the foundation, basement or crawlspaces were compromised. Do not enter the building if any such visible damage is present. If possible wait until the home has been inspected by a qualified professional.
Power Down Before Entering a Home
Before going inside, make sure all utilities have been shut off. Electric and gas lines could have been damaged in ways not immediately apparent, so preventing gas leaks or electrical discharges is very important. If you see or smell standing water or mold within the house, anyone having an immune suppression disorder or lung condition, including asthma, should not enter.
Once inside, unplug all electrical devices and remove them to a dry location. Do not restart your HVAC or water systems without having them professionally inspected first.
How to Document Damage After a Flood
While in the house, take pictures of all damage and spoilage and inventory missing or damaged belongings before beginning cleaning, debris removal, or demolition.
“This can be the hardest part for homeowners,” says Brandon Callahan, Team Rubicon’s Rebuild Operations Manager, “but individuals that have insurance should leave their property, including their home as well as the belongings in it, untouched until the insurance process is able to begin. Take photos of everything damaged, but the insurance inspectors need to be able to do their job. Some insurance companies allow photos early on and then for you to begin work, but check first so that you don’t make this process harder than it already is.”
Writing a report that details the approximate value of missing or damaged items and including pictures can help with the insurance process for those who are insured.
Be Water Wise
After a flood, water sources can be poisoned or otherwise unhealthy, so don’t drink or cook or clean with water that has not been boiled until local authorities have given the go ahead.
Discard any water, even bottled water, as well as any food that may have been contaminated by floodwaters and use only safely bottled, boiled, or otherwise treated water for drinking, cooking, or cleaning.
Beware of Hazards While Cleaning Up from a Flood
Mucking out a house can be dangerous, dirty, and may require extra tools, like shovels and wheelbarrows.
Once cleanout begins, wear protective clothing like heavy work gloves, thick boots, and durable pants and shirts. Use face masks or eye- and head-protection when cleaning mold or handling bulky or hazardous debris.
If mold has been detected, you will likely need professional contractors to clean or repair structural damage. If your home had been flooded for more than a day, assume there is mold.
Be on the lookout for animals, including snakes and rats, that may have been caught in the flood or sought shelter in the house.
Remove Standing Water and Waterlogged Items, Then Repair and Replace
Save what can be salvaged and relocate water-damaged materials and furniture out of the way. Address whatever standing water remains in the building, getting rid of as much of it as you can with a shop-vac or sump pump. Use dehumidifiers or strong fans to dry out soaked areas and, when weather permits, open all doors and windows. Acting quickly to muck and clean a home can help mitigate rust and mold which can pose health issues and create further structural problems.
Once the water is gone, throw away everything unrecoverable, including anything with water damage that cannot be scrubbed with a bleach solution, including mattresses, pillows, rugs, carpets, and stuffed animals or toys.
“You don’t need to throw away your grandmother’s china,” says Callahan, “only porous objects that can absorb liquid. Pots, pans, and tools should be fine once they’re cleaned.”
When able, store things that are or can be bleached outside of the home. Use a 1-to-5 bleach and water solution to disinfect walls, floors, and other hard surfaces.
These are some of the basic steps anyone should take to help return their home to livability after a flood.