If you’re one of the millions affected by Hurricane Harvey or Irma this year, you’re going to want to know how to clean after a flood.
The devastation of those two systems is unimaginable to those of us not in harm’s way. Along with my prayers for your continued safety and recovery, I hope this guide offers some help as you face the enormous task of rebuilding your lives and your communities.
Even if your home flooded for other reasons — heavy seasonal rainfall, blocked storm drains, or a burst pipe, for example — there is more to cleaning after a flood than just letting things dry in the sun. Your health, your belongings, and the safety of your home’s structure depend on knowing how to clean after a flood properly.
A flood’s danger doesn’t go away just because the waters have receded. Do not return to your home until local authorities have given the all-clear and utility services have safely contained their systems, eliminating the risk of electrical shocks to those wading through the remaining water and shutting off natural gas to prevent explosions. Until then, remain in the location to which you’ve evacuated.
Once the “all clear” has been issued, expect progress toward your home to be slow as hundreds, if not thousands, of others seek to get to their homes, too. Road conditions may have changed — some may be completely gone, others still underwater or heavily damaged — so pay attention to detour signs. They’re for your continued safety.
FOLLOW LOCAL LAWS
Some areas forbid re-entry to flooded homes until a licensed inspector has verified that they are safe. If you aren’t sure whether your area requires such inspections, ask your insurance agent or local police. Failure to follow this requirement may affect your insurance claim.
If you evacuated or sought shelter out of the area, be sure to stock up on supplies before your return. Stores you’re used to shopping at for food and cleaning supplies will also have been affected and may not even be open. Bring food for your family that you can eat without cooking, bottled water, toiletries (including toilet paper), and the cleaning supplies discussed below. You should also consider stopping at an ATM and refilling your car’s tank, since neither banks nor gas stations near your home may be open.
EXAMINE AND TAKE PHOTOS
Before you attempt to enter your home, walk around the premises and take lots of photos of the exterior damage. If there is standing water around your foundation or near the walls of your home do not go in! Until the waters have fully receded, your home poses a continued threat to your safety.
If there is no standing water, look for loose power lines and smell the air for the rotten egg odor of leaking gas. If you find either, leave immediately and call the local utilities to shut off service. Otherwise, locate the outside shut-off valves yourself and turn these things off.
While inspecting the outside of your home, take photos of the foundation, walls, windows, and roof. Document any fallen trees or damaged outbuildings with pictures, along with driveways or sidewalks that have heaved out of place.
Your insurance agent can be an important ally in contacting the inspectors, contractors, and other service persons whose help you need to repair your home. Your mortgage lender is also a useful resource. While you may not have flood insurance — it’s not mandatory for every area — both insurers and mortgagers have an interest in helping you protect your home from further damage. Contact them.
How To Clean After A Flood
HEALTH AND SAFETY PRECAUTIONS
Protect yourself from contaminants in flood waters. The waters and residue they leave behind are full of substances which can cause disease and infection. Wear rubber-soled, closed-toe shoes (not flip flops!), long-sleeves, and full-length jeans while cleaning your home after a flood. Use rubber or latex gloves to protect your hands and, if you see mold already growing, wear a HEPA-rated mask that covers your mouth and nose.
Wildlife and snakes. Inspect each room upon entry for signs of wildlife. In many cases, you can encourage animal intruders to leave your home by simply opening a window or door. Call animal control to deal with animals or snakes that don’t quickly flee.
Mosquitoes: Mosquito-borne illnesses are common following a flood and can be very dangerous. Be sure to wear the protective clothing described above, plus use and frequently reapply effective repellents containing DEET (up to 20%). Essential oil blends will not protect you adequately!
First Aid: Treat all cuts and abrasions immediately to prevent infection.
Hygiene: Even with proper protective clothing it is essential that you wash your hands frequently, and shower with antibacterial soap at the end of each cleaning session. Launder all clothing you’ve worn at the end of each day rather than wearing it again for the next cleaning session.
EQUIPMENT YOU’LL NEED:
• Paper towels (See note)
• Liquid dish soap
• Powdered laundry detergent
• Dishwasher detergent (if you have a dishwasher)
• White distilled vinegar
• Aluminum foil
• First Aid supplies: bandages, hydrogen peroxide, antibacterial ointment
• Antibacterial soap
• Clean clothing
NOTE: Although paper towel use can be expensive and seems wasteful, the potential for contamination after a flood is too great to risk using cloth rags or towels. You need to dispose of the towels you use to clean, rather than cross-contaminating things with them.
If you absolutely must use cloth rags or towels, first make sure your laundry facilities are working properly. Clean them according to the directions below before you begin cleaning other items in your home, and continue to disinfect them at the end of each day until you’ve finished the flood cleanup.
Do not use any appliances until your electricity has been restored and your home inspected by a licensed electrician!
Disinfecting cleaner: To disinfect appliances, combine 1/2 cup bleach and 1 gallon of clean water in a bucket. Given the enormous amount of harmful pathogens that exist in flood waters, do not try to substitute this with vinegar, baking soda, or essential oils. Your priority is getting things disinfected!
Refrigerators and freezers: Unplug the units then empty and discard the contents. Make a list of discarded items for your insurance claim. Use paper towels to dry them inside and out, then clean them with disinfectant. Do not rinse. Prop open the doors and allow them to air dry.
Washing machine and dryer: Ensure the drain and vents are open then dry the machine inside and out with paper towels and discard those. Clean the machines inside and out with disinfectant. Do not rinse. Run the washing machine on the hottest, highest setting adding only 1 cup of bleach and 1/2 cup of powdered laundry detergent to clean the inside of the hoses. Let both machines air dry, propping open the doors if needed, before the next use.
Dishwashers: Remove and hand-wash all dishes left in the machine during the flood. After washing with liquid dish soap, rinse the dishes in a sink of hot, clean water to which you’ve added 1 tablespoon of bleach. Allow these dishes to air dry. Meanwhile, clean the inside of the dishwasher, including the racks and filters, using disinfectant. Run a cycle with nothing in the machine but dish detergent to ensure the disinfectant has a chance to clean the hoses, too.
Once your appliances are in working order, clean your furniture. If you have not done so already, open all windows in your home to allow air to circulate and help your belongings begin to dry.
Mattresses: It is not safe to use mattresses which have been exposed to flooding. They just cannot dry out quickly enough to prevent the growth of mold, nor is there any way to completely kill harmful pathogens soaked into them by flood waters. Haul all mattresses to the curb for pickup and to get them out of the way of your other cleaning. Add them to your insurance claim, noting size, manufacturer, and model. Take photos to document your claim.
Sofas, recliners, other upholstered furniture: As with mattresses, these items are usually unsalvageable after a flood and unsafe to keep in your home. Haul them to the curb, taking photos of each item for your insurance claim.
Wood furniture: Tear off sheets of aluminum foil and place it under the legs or bottoms of wood furniture to keep it from absorbing additional water. Remove drawers to a dry location and set aside their contents for separate cleaning. (Do NOT force open drawers or doors.)
If possible, remove the backs of wood furnishings to allow air to circulate and dry them more quickly. Wipe each piece dry with paper towels and discard them. Wipe them with the disinfecting cleaner, wait 5 minutes, then dry them with paper towels. (Allowing wood items to air dry may lead to discoloration and further warping.)
CEILING, WALLS, FLOORS
Take photos and video footage, and talk to your insurance agent, before you begin to clean.
Ceilings and walls: Use paper towels dampened with clean water to wipe away mud and other grime. Clean each room’s ceiling first, then the walls (from the bottom up), using a mop and the disinfecting cleaner. Change the bucket of cleaner as soon as it begins to look muddy. Allow the disinfecting cleaner to remain in contact with surfaces for at least 5 minutes before wiping dry with paper towels. Leave windows open and, if possible, run a fan to circulate air and speed drying.
Carpeting: Wall-to-wall carpeting is generally considered unsalvageable after a flood, but check with your insurance company before pulling yours up! Area rugs should be taken outside to dry. You can try to scrub them using the mop and a mixture of 1 cup white vinegar, 1 tablespoon liquid dish soap, and 1 gallon of hot water then hose them down on both sides and hang them over a line or railing to dry. Your insurance agent may also know of companies that specialize in cleaning flood-damaged area rugs. Smaller mats and throw rugs should be laundered in your washing machine.
Linoleum and tile: Unbroken linoleum and tile floors may be salvageable. Use paper towels dampened with clean water to wipe away any grime or mud. Clean the floor with the disinfecting cleaner and mop, wait 5 minutes, then dry with clean paper towels. But note: if the linoleum is torn or the tiles are cracked then the subfloor is likely damaged as well. Discuss this with your insurance agent as part of your claim.
Vinyl plank and laminate floors: These surfaces are not waterproof and will most likely have to be replaced. You should still clean them for now by wiping away grime with damp paper towels then mopping them using the disinfectant cleaner. Discuss with your insurance agent whether they should be added to your claim.
Wood floors: True hardwood floors may survive a flood if properly treated, something .best left to professionals. For now, shovel and then wipe away any grime with damp paper towels and mop them using the disinfectant cleaner. Wait 5 minutes after mopping then dry the floors with paper towels to prevent further warping. If you can, run a fan in each room to help circulate air.
KITCHEN AND BATHROOM
Discard all food and toiletries not contained in airtight cans or jars. Clean the items you are not throwing away by first wiping away grime with a damp paper towel then wiping the packaging with the disinfectant cleaner. Allow these items to air dry.
Clean all other surfaces, including windows, by first wiping away grime with damp paper towels. Be sure to look for places where dirt can hide: beneath bath mats, under counter edges, in floor vents. Repeat cleaning using the disinfecting cleaner, allowing hard surfaces to air dry but using clean paper towels to porous surfaces.
To restore the shine to glass surfaces, combine 1 gallon of warm water, 1/4 cup white vinegar, and 3 drops of liquid dish detergent in a bucket. Use a paper towel to apply this to the glass then use the squeegee to dry it.
Clothing: Use a hose to clean away as much mud as possible then launder in the hottest setting the care label allows. Use bleach on towels, sheets, and white clothing. Run ALL items through the dryer or hang them in the sunshine to dry fully — both methods will kill mold spores and most other pathogens. Put “dry clean only” items in a large garbage back to take to the dry cleaners – they have methods of killing mold and pathogens. Keep a list and take photos of all items that cannot be washed and add this to your insurance claim.
Shoes: If they can be washed, run them through the machine using a warm cycle and laundry detergent then allow them to dry in the sun. Leather shoes should be photographed and added to your insurance claim.
Photographs: Place them in the freezer overnight — this makes it easier to separate them. If they do not separate the next day easily, put them in a sink of cool water and gently loosen them with your fingers. Lay damp photos, images up, on a kitchen towel to dry – do NOT wipe them while they’re damp. Once dry, give them a quick and gentle wipe on both sides with a disinfecting cloth and lay them flat to dry again.
Books: Place them flat in a freezer using aluminum foil between layers – this is the fastest way to dry them without damage. After several days, remove the books and slip clean, absorbent paper between pages. Add a double-thickness between the front and back covers and their neighboring pages. Flip them twice a day, replacing the absorbent papers daily, until they’re dry. NOTE: If the books are mass-market and easily replaced, add them to your insurance claim and move on to salvaging other items.
Documents: Place them in the freezer to dry. Once frozen, gently pry sheets apart with your fingers. Do not force them. Lay separated papers on a clean towel to air dry and return stuck documents to the freezer, repeating this process daily.
Electronics: These are most often unsalvageable. Take photos and write down details for your insurance claim. For computers, even if you add them to your insurance claim, take them to a local computer repair store to see if they can recover data from the hard drive.
THE REST OF YOUR HOME
Leave your windows open when the weather is dry. Even if it rains, leave windows open a crack on the side the rain isn’t hitting, so air continues to circulate. Run fans in each room 24/7 to improve air circulation. If you choose to run heaters to speed drying, limit them to one per room since high heat can cause items to warp.
If you discover mold or mildew after your initial cleaning efforts, you can try to treat mold on walls yourself. If these DIY remedies do not work, contact your insurance agent immediately to amend your claim and obtain professional mold-removal assistance.
Recovering from a flood is no small task, nor is it an emotionally easy one, either. Be quick about contacting your insurance agent and securing your home against further harm, but take your time about cleaning.