Water floods neighborhood in the Midwest

The longer moisture remains in your home the more damage it will leave behind. It's best to begin the cleanup process as soon as it's safe to return to the area. (Getty Images)

As hurricane and flood evacuees return to their homes and encounter heartbreaking destruction and losses, what can they do to expedite the processes of recovering and drying out their houses? Here we look at key practices recommended by top agencies such as The American Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency and The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even if your house hasn't been flooded but has been damaged by rain and storms, many of these measures can be helpful.

[Read: How to Prepare Your Home for a Hurricane Before the Weather Forecast.]

Work Safely

Floodwater is usually a toxic stew of water, sewage contamination, household chemicals, gasoline and more. After floodwater has drained from a home, the residue left behind must be decontaminated or removed.

When working in a flood-damaged home, wear rubber gloves and waterproof boots for protection against contaminants that can absorb through your skin. Wear a tight-fitting N95 respirator (not a dust mask) and safety glasses. Wash your hands regularly with hand sanitizer or soap and clean water.

Document the Damage

Before you make any repairs – including removing water and mud – use your cell phone, camera or video camera to document in detail all damage to your home for insurance and disaster relief evidence. Photograph wet wallboard, the waterline on walls, damaged flooring, baseboards, rugs, furniture, carpets, books, tools and anything else that has been ruined – even photograph the trash heap in the front yard.

Digital photos of the damage caused by flooding are ideal because they can be stored online and shared easily.

Ventilate

The longer water and moist air remain in your home following a storm, the greater the likelihood of increased damage to the house and health risks to your family. Within 48 hours, mold, mildew and fungus can begin to grow, posing serious health risks and producing a lasting musty odor. In addition, water can warp and rot wood, disintegrate wallboard, ruin most types of insulation, compromise electrical wiring and more.

During the day – when the weather is dry – open all windows and doors to exchange damp interior air for drier outdoor air. Close them at night or when outdoor humidity rises.

Also, open closet doors and drawers. If drawers are hard to pull open because of swelling, remove the backs from cabinets to increase air circulation and allow access.

Use fans, window air conditioners and dehumidifiers to dry out the air. Do not, however, turn on a central air conditioner or heating system if the equipment or ductwork was submerged in water during flooding. Doing this could blow dirt, mold and contaminants into interior areas. Have the ductwork professionally cleaned first.

[Read: How to Prepare Your Home for a Winter Storm.]

Remove, Protect and Discard

Gather your family and friends for help and support as you move through this very difficult stage. Form a debris pile in the front yard for household items and materials that were ruined during flooding. Leave the items there until your insurance adjuster can confirm your losses – but press for this to happen soon so the pile doesn’t attract pests.

Immediately trash all food that may have been in contact with floodwater, as well as refrigerated or frozen foods that may have warmed or thawed.

Move salvageable furnishings and items to a safe, dry place such as a second-story room, storing dry items in plastic tubs or plastic bags. If valuables have been in contact with sewage or chemicals, get professional help for the cleanup. Excellent tips for drying and cleaning your valuables are available in the FEMA Fact Sheet.

Dry Out & Clean

Most ceilings and walls are covered with gypsum wallboard (also known as drywall or Sheetrock). Unfortunately, wallboard that has been flooded should be removed because it retains toxins and disintegrates after being soaked.

In a typical house, 4-by-8 foot sheets of wallboard are initially applied to wall studs horizontally. Because of this, most walls have a horizontal seam between panels, occurring about 4 feet up from the floor. Unless floodwater has risen higher than 4 feet from the floor, you should be able to remove and replace only the bottom sections that sustained flood damage, leaving the existing wallboard on the upper half of the wall.

To determine whether water is inside the walls, punch or drill holes about 2 inches above the floor. If the walls do contain water, you’ll need to drill holes into each cavity between wall studs (which are typically spaced every 16 or 24 inches) to drain the water. If you’re going to remove the wallboard, it’s easiest to punch holes with a hammer.

Walls covered with plaster and lath can usually be saved unless the plaster has pulled away from the lath. If plaster walls are sound, drain any water out of the stud cavities and then thoroughly dry out the walls by encouraging air circulation with fans and ventilation – this can take some time, possibly weeks.

Regardless of the walls' surface material, those walls containing fiberglass or cellulose insulation that has been soaked during flooding will need to be opened up so the insulation can be replaced. If your home has foam insulation, you may be in luck. Foam insulation can often be hosed-off and re-used.

Wood wall studs, paneling, wood floors and solid-wood doors can usually be cleaned up, disinfected of mold and toxins and allowed to dry naturally. Then they can be re-used. Wood wall paneling should be pried away from the wall along the base so air can circulate behind it. Hollow-core doors will need to be removed and replaced.

Fortunately, concrete-block walls usually survive floods as long as they are allowed to dry.

A dilute mixture of 1 cup bleach to 5 gallons of water can be used to disinfect hard surfaces. To kill and remove mold, use a stronger mixture of 1 cup bleach to 1 gallon of water. Wear old clothes, rubber gloves, rubber boots and safety glasses when working with bleach. Never mix ammonia and bleach – the fumes can be deadly.

Unfortunately, in most situations, carpeting, carpet pads, rugs, upholstered furniture, mattresses and bedding will be ruined if they were drenched by flooding. Not only does the water and mold wreck them, but mold can grow inside them. If this is the case, pull them out of the house (cutting up wall-to-wall carpeting first makes it easier to manage as you pull it out of the area). In some cases, valuable carpets can be removed and professionally cleaned and dried. You can machine-wash and dry small rugs.

[Read: Disaster Damaged Your Home? How to File a Successful Insurance Claim.]

Because wallpaper and wall coverings slow down drying and encourage mold growth, it's probably best to strip them from the walls.

To dry out raised (non-slab) floors, air must circulate around them. Pump any standing water out of the basement or crawlspace. If the floor is covered with vinyl tile or linoleum flooring that is peeling up, remove the floor covering so the underlayment can dry out.

Once you've arrived at this stage of drying out your house, you'll be well on the road to rebuilding your home and your life.

Don Vandervort is the founder of HomeTips.com, where he offers more tips for recovering from floods and disasters.

Tags: real estate, housing, home improvements, floods, hurricanes, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, insurance, home insurance


Don Vandervort is the founder of HomeTips.com, a leading home improvement advice site. Don has authored many home improvement books, written extensively for MSN.com, and served as a segment host on HGTV.

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