Returning to a Flooded Building
A building that has been damaged by rising floodwater is likely to be a dangerous place. If you are going to enter a building that has been flooded, particularly to clean, use protective equipment including rubber or hard- soled boots, rubber gloves, a N-95 disposable dust mask and a hard hat and safety glasses for overhead work, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS).
Injury is the greatest threat in returning to a home that has been flooded. Among the hazards are electrical and structural dangers, hazardous materials and potential injury to hands, back, knees or shoulders. Children should not be allowed in homes that are being inspected or repaired.
If water has come in contact with electrical circuits, and especially if the water rose above electrical outlets, turn off power at the main breaker or fuse on the service panel. Do not turn power back on until electrical equipment has been repaired and inspected by a qualified electrician. Check with your county building inspector. Do not enter flooded areas or wet buildings if the power is on.
Never assume that water-damaged structures are safe. An engineer or building inspector needs to inspect the building for stability and safety. Leave immediately if shifting or unusual noises signal a possible building collapse.
Household Hazardous Materials
Damaged building materials may contain asbestos and lead-based paint. If you will need to remove materials that may contain asbestos or be covered with lead-based paint, seek the help of a qualified consultant to aid you in determining what you need to do to remedy your situation.
Floodwaters can cause containers of hazardous materials such as pesticides, fuel or gasoline to spill indoors. If there is a noticeable chemical odor and/or a spilled container indoors, contact your local health department or fire department for help.
Avoid skin contact with contaminated materials or contaminated water and keep the area well ventilated or, even better, play it safe and leave.
Be careful when handling or lifting heavy loads such as furniture or carpet. To avoid back injury, do not lift loads of more than 50 pounds. Wear rubber boots or hard-soled boots, preferably with steel toes, when working and lifting.
If a building has been flooded to the ceiling or if you are doing work that is higher than your shoulders, you should wear a hard hat and safety glasses or goggles.
You are most likely to be injured when you are tired and not paying to attention to common- sense safety issues. Take breaks often and never drink alcohol when you are working in a flood- damaged building.
You may come in contact with biological hazards that could cause illness if you breathe in or swallow contaminants. Some contaminants such as bacteria or viruses may be left indoors by floodwater, while fungi or mold may grow indoors after the water has receded
Bacteria and Viruses
Some of these microscopic organisms, particularly those from sewage, will be in floodwater, mud and sediment left by floodwater. If you swallow sediment or floodwater, you may develop gastrointestinal (digestive tract) illness. Because there is so much water involved in flooding, the concentration of organisms will be diluted, and the risk of disease is small. To reduce the risks, wear rubber gloves while working, do not eat or smoke in the building and wash your hands frequently.
If you get a cut or a puncture wound that is exposed to floodwater, you will be at some risk of tetanus. You should be vaccinated if you haven’t had a tetanus vaccination or “booster” in the last 5 years. People need to receive the tetanus vaccine every 10 years. No other vaccinations are recommended because of flooding.
Fungi (Mold and Mildew)
Many building materials, furniture and other items that stay wet for more than a few days will become moldy. Mold colonies are the fuzzy or patchy white, green, brown or black growths that you will see on wallboard, wood furniture and cabinets, clothing, wall studs, and most other surfaces.
Mold releases tiny spores and other cells into the air that can cause allergic illness such as hay fever (coughing, sneezing, irritated eyes), asthma symptoms or other respiratory illness that can be serious. Some molds may also produce toxins that could cause numbers of other illnesses. Mold contamination can be quite severe in a flooded building. The risk is greatest for people with allergies, asthma, and the very old or very young.
Exposure will be greatest when you move or disturb moldy materials. Wet the mold with a soapy solution from a sprayer before you move it to reduce the release of spores. Mold can make you sick even after you have sprayed disinfectants to kill it.
If you enter a flood-damaged building, wear a dust mask or respirator to reduce your exposure to mold. Look for a mask with “NIOSH” approval and an N-95 rating. Both of these marks should be on the respirator and the container. Look for the masks at your hardware or home supply store if they are not available from your local health department.
Remember that the masks are disposable and should be thrown away at the end of the day. Read and follow the instructions on the mask package.
The most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to use common sense and be aware of safety and health risks, and do not enter a building that is clearly unsafe. If you have questions or need assistance ask your local health department.
Publication # E19-12246 Rev 07/05
Ready.gov: Returning Home (included below)
Returning home can be both physically and mentally challenging. Above all, use caution. You may be anxious to see your property but do not return to your home before the area is declared to be safe by local officials.
Before You Enter Your Home
Inspect your home carefully before entering.
Walk carefully around the outside and check for loose power lines, gas leaks and structural damage. If you have any doubts about safety, have your residence inspected by a qualified building inspector or structural engineer before entering.
- Keep a battery-powered radio with you so you can listen for emergency updates and news reports.
- Use a battery-powered flash light to inspect a damaged home.
Note: The flashlight should be turned on outside before entering - the battery may produce a spark that could ignite leaking gas, if present.
- Watch out for animals, especially poisonous snakes. Use a stick to poke through debris.
- Use the phone only to report life-threatening emergencies.
- As you return home, watch for fallen objects; downed electrical wires; and weakened walls, bridges, roads and sidewalks.
Do not enter if:
- You smell gas.
- Floodwaters remain around the building.
- Your home was damaged by fire and the authorities have not declared it safe.
Going Inside Your Home
Be cautious when entering your home after a disaster.
When you go inside your home, there are certain things you should and should not do. Enter the home carefully and check for damage. Be aware of loose boards and slippery floors. The following items are other things to check inside your home:
- Natural gas. If you smell gas or hear a hissing or blowing sound, open a window and leave immediately. Turn off the main gas valve from the outside, if you can. Call the gas company from a neighbor’s residence. If you shut off the gas supply at the main valve, you will need a professional to turn it back on. Do not smoke or use oil, gas lanterns, candles or torches for lighting inside a damaged home until you are sure there is no leaking gas or other flammable materials present.
- Sparks, broken or frayed wires. Check the electrical system unless you are wet, standing in water or unsure of your safety. If possible, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. If the situation is unsafe, leave the building and call for help. Do not turn on the lights until you are sure they’re safe to use. You may want to have an electrician inspect your wiring.
- Roof, foundation and chimney cracks. If it looks like the building may collapse, leave immediately.
- Appliances. If appliances are wet, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. Then, unplug appliances and let them dry out. Have appliances checked by a professional before using them again. Also, have the electrical system checked by an electrician before turning the power back on.
- Water and sewage systems. If pipes are damaged, turn off the main water valve. Check with local authorities before using any water; the water could be contaminated. Pump out wells and have the water tested by authorities before drinking. Do not flush toilets until you know that sewage lines are intact.
- Food and other supplies. Throw out all food and other supplies that you suspect may have become contaminated or come in to contact with floodwater.
- Your basement. If your basement has flooded, pump it out gradually (about one third of the water per day) to avoid damage. The walls may collapse and the floor may buckle if the basement is pumped out while the surrounding ground is still waterlogged.
- Open cabinets. Be alert for objects that may fall.
- Clean up household chemical spills. Disinfect items that may have been contaminated by raw sewage, bacteria, or chemicals. Also clean salvageable items.
- Call your insurance agent. Take pictures of damages. Keep good records of repair and cleaning costs.
Being Wary of Wildlife and Other Animals
Be wary of wildlife as you return home after a disaster.
Disaster and life threatening situations will exacerbate the unpredictable nature of wild animals. To protect yourself and your family, learn how to deal with wildlife.
- Do not corner wild animals or try to rescue them. Wild animals will likely feel threatened and may endanger themselves by dashing off into floodwaters, fire, and so forth. Call your local animal control office or wildlife resource office.
- Wild animals often seek higher ground which, during floods, eventually become submerged (i.e., island) and the animals become stranded. If the island is large enough and provides suitable shelter, you can leave food appropriate to the species (i.e., sunflower seeds for squirrels). Animals have a flight response and will flee from anyone approaching too closely. If the animal threatens to rush into the water, back away from the island or you may frighten the animal into jumping into the water to escape from you.
- Do not approach wild animals that have taken refuge in your home. Wild animals such as snakes, opossums and raccoons often seek refuge from floodwaters on upper levels of homes and have been known to remain after water recedes. If you encounter animals in this situation, open a window or provide another escape route and the animal will likely leave on its own. Do not attempt to capture or handle the animal. Should the animal stay, call your local animal control office or wildlife resource office.
- Beware of an increased number of snakes and other predators. These animals will try to feed on the carcasses of reptiles, amphibians and small mammals who have been drowned or crushed in their burrows or under rocks.
- Do not attempt to move a dead animal. Animal carcasses can present serious health risks. Outbreaks of anthrax, encephalitis and other diseases may occur. Contact your local emergency management office or health department for help and instructions.
- If bitten by an animal, seek immediate medical attention.