Cleaning up after a hurricane is an emotional, and potentially deadly experience homeowners face when restoring some normalcy into their lives. Hurricane cleanup must be done safely and efficiently to protect yourself and family members from the devastation in the hurricane’s aftermath. As part of your hurricane preparedness plan, supplies should be purchased ahead of the storm to make cleaning up possible. While some people will lose everything in the storm, having cleanup supplies as part of your hurricane preparedness kit will be a blessing in disguise.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends safety items you should include in your hurricane cleanup kit. These items include:
- Face masks
- Heavy-duty work gloves
- Hard hats
- Waterproof boots (preferably steel-toed)
- Earplugs/noise-canceling headphones
- Several fire extinguishers
You will also need a supply of garbage bags, bleach and other cleaning agents, rags, brooms, shovels, and, if possible, access to equipment such as wet/dry vacuums, chainsaws and generators.
Cleanup Tips after a Hurricane
After a hurricane, there is a lot of work to be done on the outside of your home. If your home has been damaged, there may also be a lot of cleanup needed on the inside before you can safely start living in your residence again.
On the inside
- Wear Personal Protective Gear
While outside temperatures may be high, it is important to wear the proper protective gear during cleanups. Rubber gloves, face masks, goggles, long-sleeved shirts and pants, and sturdy boots are all recommended during hurricane cleanup efforts to protect you from hazards and contaminants. Contaminated flood waters can cause serious illness, especially when you have open wounds or cuts on your body. Personal protective gear will help prevent contaminants from touching your skin or being inhaled into your lungs during cleanup.
- Remove Water
If a hurricane has caused flooding which has entered your house, you’ll need to remove as much of the water as you can. Before entering a flooded home, ensure all electricity to the house is turned off until you can remove standing water from the floors. A utility pump connected to a generator will remove water quickly. Wet/dry vacuums can be used to remove water from carpeting and furniture upholstery. You can also employ a carpet cleaning machine to suck water from the fabrics for faster drying.
Activate fans to circulate air throughout your home to aid the drying process. Keep windows open for fresh air and better circulation during cleaning. Hardwood or concrete floors can be dried using a mop or clean towels then cleaned with a disinfecting cleaner or bleach and water solution. Carpeting soaked by flood waters should be ripped up and discarded. Flooring beneath the carpets should be thoroughly dried and disinfected.
- Treat and Prevent Mold
After removing as much water as possible, employ dehumidifiers to reduce dampness and help prevent the development of mold. If mold is detected during cleanup, it is important to remove it immediately. A bleach mixture, as recommended by FEMA (1 cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water), should be applied to the area and scrubbed with a brush until mold is removed. Always wear gloves during your cleanup efforts. You may also wish to wear a face mask when working around mold.
In the event floors and walls are soaked in flood waters for an extended period of time before cleanup can begin, dry wall and flooring materials may need to be permanently removed and discarded to eliminate mold and other harmful contaminants from the home. A professional mold remediation evaluation is highly recommended after cleanup to verify your home is mold-free and safe to live in.
Be sure to wash any affected clothing, drapery, and blankets to prevent mold and mildew. Wet clothing and the like should be allowed to dry out in the sun, if possible. Shake clothing to remove any loose dirt before loading the washing machine. Use the hottest water setting possible, per the manufacturer’s direction and add a disinfectant cleaner, such as Lysol, along with your regular laundry detergent.
- Disinfect Personal Items
Any personal items you wish to keep must be cleaned and thoroughly disinfected. Using a disinfectant cleaner or bleach solution, wash and rinse toys, plates and utensils, and anything remaining in the house which has been touched by flood waters. If there are items you cannot clean, they must be disposed of for everyone’s safety, especially stuffed animals, unprotected foods, mattresses, pillows, clothing, books, and other household items touched by flood waters. It is also important to disinfect your household appliances, counter tops, furniture, sinks, and toilets before use.
- Understand Disposal Schedules
Know the schedule for community pickup of hurricane-related trash items. Be sure to have your discarded items bagged and ready on collection days to decrease your exposure to the contamination. Make sure you understand what kind of items are being collected and any other requirements your local solid waste authority has for disposal pickup. As part of your emergency hurricane preparedness plan, you should have a list of contact numbers for local authorities in the event you cannot receive special alerts and announcements due to power outages.
- Stay Cool
Working to clean a home without electricity may be exhausting. If the outside temperatures are high, dehydration and fatigue can make cleanup dangerous. Make sure to take frequent breaks and drink plenty of clean water during cleanup. Find local places or friends with working air conditioners to cool off and rest your body at regular intervals. Dedicate more work time during the evening or early morning hours before the sun’s heat becomes too intense.
- Take Your Time
You will certainly wish cleanup could be done in an instant but the reality is hurricane cleanup can take weeks or even years before a sense of normalcy is restored. It is important you pace yourself during your cleanup effort. Start with a plan for tackling the major cleanup issues first and focus only on those details until they’re completed. Trying to do too much at once may cause you to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and depressed. Do as much as you can and rest frequently. Stay in touch with your neighbors, your community, and other family and friends for added support. Work in teams to accomplish tasks and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Don’t Delay Medical Attention
If you start to feel ill or experience symptoms out of the ordinary, seek medical help immediately. Flood waters contain a lot of different contaminants including viruses, toxins, and sewage. There may also be other toxins in the air during cleanup efforts on a large scale. Go to your local emergency room as soon as possible for a full evaluation. Delaying attention could lead to more serious illness and even death.
- Avoid Carbon Monoxide Issues
Generators, propane grills, and similar items should never be used indoors. Carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas, is produced by these devices and without the proper ventilation a buildup of this gas can cause serious sickness and even sudden death. If you need to use grills or a generator for cooking and electricity, only use them outside and away from doors and windows.
- Discard Tainted Food
After a hurricane, your food supply may have been affected by flood waters or suffered water damage from a leaking roof or busted window. There will also be a loss of cold and frozen foods when the power was lost and the freezer and refrigerator thawed out. It is very important you toss out anything perishable as soon as possible. Not only will thawed foods attract insects, eating them can cause a variety of illnesses, including food poisoning
Never drink any water from the tap until you can confirm its safety. Tap water should not be used for bathing, teeth brushing, or washing clothes until the all clear is given by local authorities.
Your emergency food supply and bottled water should be your source of nutrition until you can purchase fresh products from the grocery store. Canned food items should be cleaned with a bleach/water solution if touched by flood waters. In the interest of safety, it is better to dispose of potentially tainted foods, cooking supplies, and other food-related items than to get sick from toxic contaminants.
On the outside
- Be Vigilant about Dangers and Hazardous Materials
Cleaning up around the exterior of your home has many dangers. Try to work in teams if possible, especially in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Be careful around buildings and other structures showing obvious damage. Stay away from downed power lines, especially if streets are filled with flood waters, and report line locations to the local authorities. If you smell gas, smoke, or other strange scents, contact your local authorities to report it and avoid lighting fires or smoking in the immediate area.
During a hurricane, items that are not yours can show up on your property. In some cases, the items are dangerous and need to be handled by a professional. Chemicals, propane tanks, car batteries, and other potentially hazardous materials need to be evaluated and removed by professionals. Your local fire department, utility authority, or police department can direct you to the right resource for dangerous discoveries.
- Stay Alert When Cutting Trees
Downed trees often need to be cleared from roadways and property lines to permit access to your home. The CDC reports nearly 36,000 people are injured while using a chainsaw. If you’re using a chainsaw, make sure you review the manufacturer’s operating instructions before use. Wear protective gloves and eyewear when operating the chainsaw and clearing trees and branches. Ear protection is also recommended during prolonged chainsaw use.
Identify areas where power lines are near downed trees. If a tree is making contact with a power line, call utility authorities for help and avoid the area. If a tree has fallen on top of your home, contact a professional tree service for evaluation and removal. Improperly cutting trees resting on a home can cause additional damage to the structure and be especially dangerous for cleanup workers.
- Use Teamwork
Disposing of heavy objects damaged by flood waters or hurricane-force winds should be done with a sufficient amount of people to reduce the risk of injury. Objects weighing more than 50 pounds should be lifted by teams of at least two people.
Constant work during cleanup efforts can increase your risk for back injuries, knee problems, and other injuries. If you start to feel pain in your body beyond tired muscles, take a break. If pain continues, see a medical professional immediately. Working through the pain is a good way to ensure your cleanup efforts will come to a complete stop if you seriously injure yourself and are unable to continue.
As you put your home back together and start rebuilding your life after a hurricane, keep in mind everything you accomplished in the aftermath and what it took to get you there. When you start rebuilding your hurricane preparedness kit, you’ll know exactly what you need to be ready for the next one. Also keep in mind your home and belongings are, for the most part, replaceable – but you are not. Safety should be your number one priority during hurricane cleanup efforts.