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What to do after a flood - do it quickly.

By Jason Earle Google+
Source: Habitat Quarterly, Summer 2010

The year 2010 has gotten off to a very wet start, with major flooding in several areas. Since January, floods worthy of national news coverage, some of historic proportions, have inundated North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Kentucky, Tennessee, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

The New England floods were said to be the worst in 200 years, and in Nashville TN something unprecedented happened: The Grand Ole Opry went underwater.

When floods hit cities and commercial buildings whose owners have healthy bank accounts and adequate insurance, it's almost entertaining to see the action after the water recedes. Machinery and crews of workers hit the scene immediately, tearing out soggy materials, scooping out mud, drying out structures with huge fans. In the vast majority of cases, these buildings end up being restored to as-new or better condition. Ensuing mold problems are rare.

In surrounding residential neighborhoods, often at lower elevations and especially those not so well heeled, the cleanup process is much slower, and mold problems become increasingly likely. The most extreme example, of course, is New Orleans after the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many homes there are still not restored, and many never will be. Mold is as common in New Orleans as sourdough bread in San Francisco.

Mold does not give you much time to react after a flood - even a small one. You have 24 hours to get wet things out of the house and dry out the remaining structure, or it's a virtual certainty you will have a bumper crop of mold. Mold has been tied to various health conditions such as asthma, chronic sinusitis, allergies, bronchitis and even depression.

Whether your flood is caused by nature, a plumbing failure, a sewage leak or a roof defect`, the first priority is safety, and the second priority is getting the water out. The New York State Health Department has compiled a comprehensive list of tasks and precautions, which we offer in its entirety (with our notes - italicized) here.

New York State and local government officials caution that recovering from a flood involves taking many special precautions, including the following:

  • Basic hygiene is very important during this emergency period. Always wash your hands with soap and water that has been boiled or disinfected before eating and after toilet use, cleanup activities or handling items contaminated by floodwater or sewage.
  • Flood waters may contain fecal matter from sewage systems, agricultural and industrial waste and septic tanks. If you have open cuts or sores exposed to the floodwater, keep them as clean as possible by washing them with soap and disinfected or boiled water. Apply antibiotic ointment to reduce the risk of infection.
  • Do not allow children to play in floodwater or with toys that are contaminated by floodwater. If floodwaters are covering your septic tank and leach field you should not use any flush toilets attached to the system.
  • Moisture that enters buildings from leaks or flooding accelerates mold growth. Molds can cause disease, trigger allergic reactions and continue to damage materials after the storm. Remove standing water from your home or office. Remove wet materials promptly and ventilate; use fans and dehumidifiers if possible.
  • If mold growth has already occurred, it is best to have a professional remove it. Individuals with known mold allergies or asthma should never clean or remove mold. Be careful about mixing household cleaners and disinfectants, as combining certain types of products can produce toxic fumes and result in injury or death (Editor's Note: NEVER mix bleach and ammonia. Antimicrobials, especially bleach, can be very useful cleaning up after "gray water" or "black water" floods. But bleach won't work for mold remediation, except on tile. It really works best when bacteria is a concern.)

In general, do not try to save moldy, porous items (items that absorb water). The following items need to be thrown away when you can see or smell mold and/or the materials have been under water:
  • Carpet, carpet padding and rugs
  • Upholstered furniture, mattresses and box springs
  • Computers, microwaves, window A/C units and other electronics/appliances that had fans and were housed in moldy rooms
  • Papers and books
  • Food items, including canned foods that were in contact with flood waters
  • Items that can typically be saved include:
  • Nonporous items like china, glass, jewelry, porcelain and metal
  • All-wood furniture with mold growth but otherwise in good condition
  • Some electronics and small appliances (depends on flooding conditions)
  • Photographs, books and valuable or important legal documents with minor levels of mold growth
  • Artwork, textiles, clothing that are not physically damaged
  • Walls, hard-surfaced floors and many other household surfaces must be cleaned with soap and water and disinfected with a solution of 1 cup of bleach to five gallons of water. (Editor's Note: Filling your home and lungs with chlorine gas is not the best idea. A cup of vinegar instead of bleach makes an effective biocide for mold, without the toxic fumes. In many cases, a simple detergent like trisodium phosphate will do fine.)
  • Thoroughly disinfect surfaces that come in contact with food and children's play areas. Replace fiberboard, insulation and disposable filters in your heating/cooling system.
  • Wear rubber boots and waterproof gloves during clean-up. (Editor's Note: and respiratory protection, such as N-95-rated respirators)
  • It can be difficult to throw away items in a home, particularly those with sentimental value. However, keeping certain items soaked by sewage or floodwaters may be unhealthy. Materials that cannot be thoroughly cleaned and dried within 24-48 hours should be discarded. (Editor's Note: Items of great financial value may be cleaned by a firm which specializes in high-value restoration.)
  • As you start cleaning, you will likely produce a great deal of garbage. Local authorities will tell you where and when collection will occur. Garbage invites insects and rodents. Rodents, in particular, may be looking for food because the flood may have destroyed their homes and normal food source.
  • Store any garbage in watertight, rodent/insect-proof containers with tight-fitting covers. Use plastic liners if available. Put garbage in a convenient location but not near your well.

Heavy rains and flooding can lead to an increase in mosquitoes that may be infected with West Nile virus. To protect against mosquitoes, remain diligent in your personal mosquito protection efforts. Avoid being outdoors when mosquitoes are most active. For many species, this is during the dusk and dawn hours. Also:
  • Wear clothing that covers most of your skin.
  • Repellents containing DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide), picaridin or OLE (oil of lemon eucalyptus) are options. Use strictly according to label instructions. Do not allow children to apply repellents and avoid applying repellents to the hands of young children. (Editor's Note: Check around your home to rid the area of standing water, and eliminate other breeding sites - remove old tires and turn over or remove empty containers; anything that holds water.)
We can never be prepared enough for floods and other natural disasters. Prudence dictates that we must plan for the worst but expect the best. The three most important things to remember in any kind of flood are:

A. Safety first. We can always replace things, but lives should not be lost for the sake of protecting material goods.

B. Act fast.
Water must be removed within 24 hours if you're to have any hope of preventing a major mold problem.

C. Call a professional.
Get a water-removal and restoration specialist immediately, and consider hiring a mold-detection professional such as 1-800-GOT-MOLD? if there is the slightest inkling of a mold problem.

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What to do after a flood - do it quickly.
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