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Clean Your Flooded Home

After a flood strikes, it's important to clean your home as soon as it's safe to do so. In its brochure "Flood Cleanup and the Air in Your Home," the Environmental Protection Agency says when your home and belongings are wet for more than two days, mold can grow.

A flooded home.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross, in their brochure "Repairing Your Flooded Home," say that before you begin cleanup efforts, it's important to make sure it's safe to return to and enter your home.

Going back into your home after a flood may be dangerous because of potential structural and electrical hazards, according to FEMA and the American Red Cross. Listen to local radio or TV reports to find out when it's safe to try, or contact your local emergency management agency.

Once you get to your home, there are several things you should check before going inside. FEMA and the American Red Cross say to avoid going in if there is any water standing next to the outside walls. Before you go in, carefully walk around the outside of your home and check for loose power lines (do not touch them!) and gas leaks. If you find any, contact your utility company. Check the foundation for cracks, and examine the exterior for obvious damage. If you have any doubts about safety, contact a contractor or home inspector before going in.

Before going inside, you should turn off the gas and electricity at your home. Even if service is shut off in the area, you must turn off your main breaker box and the gas to your home, in case the utility company turns on the service to your area again. For specific safety tips on how to do this, visit the FEMA and American Red Cross guide.

Preparing for Cleanup

Once you have deemed it safe, it's time to very carefully enter your home. Before you go inside, the EPA suggests you wear the following safety gear:

  • N-95 respirator to cover your mouth and nose
  • Safety goggles without vent holes
  • Gloves
  • Long pants and a long-sleeved shirt
  • Boots or work shoes

FEMA and the American Red Cross suggest that you bring a flashlight, a camera or video camera to record the damage, any tools you might need (such as a hammer and a crowbar), trash bags, a wooden stick for turning items over and trash bags.

There are a few steps that FEMA and the American Red Cross suggest once you go into your home:

  • Rescue the most valuable items: Find and protect the "irreplaceable" items, like money, jewelry, photographs and family heirlooms. Resist the urge to clean everything you pick up. Protect the items first and clean them later. Put them on elevated, dry places.
  • Protect your home from further damage: Open doors and windows to get fresh air moving through your home. Patch and cover holes in the roof, walls or windows with boards, tarps or plastic sheeting. Remove debris like tree limbs and garbage. Check for broken or leaking pipes and if you find any, turn off the water supply. Brace sagging floors and ceiling with 4x4s or other heavy lumber.
  • Drain your basement carefully: If your basement is flooded, don't pump out the water right away. Water in the ground is likely pushing against your basement walls, and the water inside is pushing back. If you drain the basement too quickly, the walls and floor may crack and collapse.
  • Remove the mud: Mud inside your home may contain many health hazards. Remove the mud as quickly as possible, as once it dries, it's more difficult to get out. Make sure the electricity is turned off and start removing the mud with a shovel, and then utilize your garden hose. Even if your water supply is not safe to drink, it can be used for cleaning your home.

Dry Out Your Home

Floodwaters can affect a home in three ways: Water damages the materials, mud and other contaminants create health hazards, and dampness promotes the growth of mold and mildew. Some simple steps (followed in order) may help reduce the effect of all three situations, according to FEMA and the American Red Cross.

  • Lower the humidity: Reducing the humidity can help everything dry more quickly. Open the doors and windows, open cabinets and closets, use fans to move the air (do not use your home's central air conditioning or furnace), use dehumidifiers, use desiccants (moisture-absorbing materials). You also may consider calling a professional that specializes in drying out flooded buildings to help you. Be patient, as the entire process could take a few weeks.
  • Sort contents and discard debris: Divide your home's content into three categories: items you want to save (move these to a safe, dry place), items to be discarded (put them outside to dry), and garbage (throw out the garbage in plastic garbage bags). Typically, there will be frequent garbage pickups after a flood.
  • Drain the ceilings and walls: Drain ceilings by poking a hole with a long poker (directions are located here). Drain walls by puncturing them with an awl or knife, about 2 inches about the floor. If water drips out, cut a larger hole to allow more water to flow.
  • Dry the ceilings and walls: FEMA and the American Red Cross say that if floodwaters soaked the wallboard at least 4 feet above the floor, all the wallboard should be removed and replaced. If it was less than 4 feet deep, they say you can remove the lower 4 feet of wallboard and replace it with 4-foot by 8-foot wallboard sheets laid on their side. Plaster and paneling may be able to be saved if properly ventilated and dried. Cut holes in the walls low enough that they can be covered by baseboards when they're dry. (Cut both sides of interior walls, and only on the inside of exterior walls.) If there's insulation, plaster and wallboard must be removed to take out all the insulation. For more specific directions, visit the Repairing Your Flooded Home guide.
  • Dry the floors. Most floor coverings should be thrown away, due to the mud and dirt left by floodwaters., Air needs to circulate below the floor in order to dry it, so remove any plastic sheets or insulation from beneath the flooring until it's dry. If the crawl space is flooded, pump it out.

If you have flood insurance, FEMA says you should retain samples of items such as carpets, wallpaper and drapes, in order to help the adjuster. You should also set any damaged items aside so the adjuster can look at them. FEMA warns that you should take photographs of and then immediately throw away any items that pose a health risk, such as perishable food items.

It may take some time before a repair professional can come to your home and fix any utility issues you might have. If that's the case, do as much cleaning as possible while you wait for your utilities to be restored. For tips about specific utilities, please visit the Repairing Your Flooded Home booklet by the American Red Cross and FEMA.

Begin Cleaning

Emergency officials say you should clean and disinfect every flooded part of your house, and even some parts that did not touch the floodwaters. In most cases, FEMA and the American Red Cross say, regular household cleaning products should work. Make sure to read all labels to make sure that a cleaning product is appropriate for a certain material. Also, make sure not to combine different cleaning products, such as bleach and ammonia, which can create dangerous fumes.

Authorities say you should throw away any food that was touched by floodwaters, even if it is in a can. If you're unsure about the safety of food after a flood, please call the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-800-535-4555. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also provides relevant food safety information on Twitter @USDAFoodSafety and Facebook.

For more in-depth tips on cleaning up your home after a flood, you can visit the Repairing Your flooded Home guide by FEMA and the American Red Cross.

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