There’s a lot of things you plan to do in the event of a flood, fire, or other disaster. Hopefully you’ll never have to do them.
But what do you do once the unthinkable happens? You probably already have an emergency plan in place for when a disaster is approaching, or even happening at that moment. But what about when it’s over? How on earth are you supposed to get back on your feet after a fire or flood has damaged or destroyed your home? Well, the good news is we can help you rebuild your world. Here are some tips on disaster cleanup from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, The American Red Cross, and Aer Industries, a company that deals with professional disaster restoration.
First, be safe.
If you must evacuate your home, don’t reenter it until a fire or other local official has given the OK. If your home was severely damaged, wait for a contractor to evaluate it and, if necessary, shore up damaged areas before you return.
“Water or fire damage in a building can cause more than surface-deep damage,” said the Aer Industries team, in an e-mail.
After a fire, the fire department should ensure utilities are safe to use or disconnected. Don’t reconnect utilities, FEMA recommended. Standing water and electricity is a bad combination, so make sure the power’s off before you enter a flooded area.
Beware contaminants. After a major flood, Aer Industries recommends professionals wear full biohazard gear, including respirators.
“If [homeowners] feel they need safety gear then they should probably not be entering a structure,” the Aer Industries team wrote.
If it is safe to enter, wear boots, gloves, pants and long-sleeved shirts, safety glasses, and a mask or respirator.
“When fire strikes, lives are suddenly turned around. Often, the hardest part is knowing where to begin and who to contact,” said a FEMA release about house fires.
After a fire, first arrange for shelter and immediate needs like medicine through a local disaster relief service like the Red Cross. Arrange a place for pets – fumes and lingering smoke are bad for everything that breathes. Tell police if your home will be unoccupied.
if you’re insured – and you really should be – contact your insurance company. How will you know the phone number? Well, before any disaster you should have compiled copies of important papers and put them where you could quickly grab them or away from your residence – say, cloud storage, safety deposit box or close friend or family member. FEMA’s “Emergency Financial First-Aid Kit” will help you identify and prepare important documents and emergency contacts.
Once it’s safe to reenter your home, inventory the damage. Don’t throw anything away until it’s been inventoried, FEMA said.
Next, vacuum floors and upholstered furniture. Cover furniture before using it to keep soot and ash from grinding into the furniture and carpet.
Wipe off counter tops and hardwood floors, and coat faucets and other fixtures with petroleum jelly or other oil. This will help prevent soot from causing permanent stains, the Aer Industries team wrote. However, don’t clean powder from fire extinguishers.
Empty the fridge and freezer, leaving them open to prevent mold and mildew, and discard the food. Don’t eat anything that was in the house during the fire, because it’s likely contaminated either from the fire or from extinguishing efforts.
Don’t use appliances or electronic devices like computers until a professional has cleared them, so they don’t sustain more damage. Drain your pipes and hot water heater to keep them from bursting.
Don’t clean walls and ceilings or clothing. Let a professional check them out first.
“Without the proper training to evaluate and repair fire damage, homeowners can actually do more harm to the restoration process than good,” the Aer Industries team wrote. “Attempting to use your own equipment or cleaning products can…push soot and smoke damage further into porous materials like drywall.”
Most fire damage is from a combination of fire, smoke, and water used to extinguish the fire, the Aer Industries team wrote. So treat a fire-damaged home similar to a flood-damaged one.
The Red Cross gives an excellent primer on how to check a home’s structure and utilities after a flood. Once you know the flooded area is safe to enter, take pictures of the damage for insurance purposes. You do have flood insurance, right?
If water damage is from potable water, like a sprinkler pipe, quickly get the water out to prevent mold. You must often replace the carpet pad after a flood, but you can salvage your carpet if you act quickly.
Dry carpets using an industrial carpet tool then steam clean them. Scrub walls, baseboards and furniture with soap and water then sanitize them with bleach – a cup and a half per gallon. Open drawers, closets and cupboards. Use a dehumidifier to dry the area. Put books and important papers into the freezer. This will help dry them out and prevent mold. Set aside water-damaged possessions for a professional to examine, and remove possessions that water didn’t touch to keep them safe during the remediation process, the Aer Industries team said. Don’t use immersed appliances until a professional clears them.
Unpotable water damage from, say, a widespread flood, is far harder to clean. Hazards include not only water contamination from sewage and chemical runoff, but also downed power lines and snakes and other animals that might have entered the home with the water. Plan to use a disaster remediation service (that’s where flood insurance is handy).
“Unfortunately, helpful homeowners are likely to do more harm than good when dealing with sewage. The best you can do is to dry damp areas in the first 48 hours to help prevent mold growth,” said an Aer Industries blog.
Even normal cleaning supplies can mix and cause toxic fumes, according to the Red Cross.
“When in doubt, throw it out,” the Red Cross advised.
Throw out all food, drink and medicine exposed to flooding, as well as plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples, and even sealed containers. Get rid of any items that absorb water and can’t be disinfected, like carpets, mattresses, and stuffed toys.