After a Flood: Tackling the Damage Left Behind

flood damage how to clean up

You’re not supposed to look down your stairs and see a fish swimming in your basement. Water belongs outside your home, not half way up the walls inside. When your basement, or any level of your home, is flooded, you can’t afford to spend valuable moments wondering what you’re going to do. No matter what the reason your home flooded or the source of the water, you must take action quickly. My family lived through a 100-year flood on a lake where the dam floodgates couldn’t open from lack of maintenance. Before the dam was washed away, it entered our home. We survived – and you will too. Here’s what you need to know to get your home back in order.

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Tools to Deal With Flooding

You wouldn’t bake a cake without a cake pan and an oven. When it comes to any job, having the right tools and materials to accomplish the task is half the battle. Don’t even think of facing your flooded house without arming yourself with what you need beforehand. Some of the things you need you’re also unlikely to have laying around, so you may need to make arrangements to obtain them (quickly) before you start.

  • Water Pump: For anything more than an inch or two of water, a water pump is a necessity. In some areas, the local fire department is willing to assist homeowners with significant flooding (over 8 or 10 inches), but even then, they generally cannot remove the last few inches of water. You can use anything from a hand-crank pump (which is a lot of work!) to pool pumps and submersible pumps or other utility pumps. As long as it will suck out the water, it will work. The larger the diameter of hose used, the faster the water will flow, so a pump designed to hook up to a garden hose will take longer. Prepare to pay anywhere from around $50 for the cheapest pump and hoses to upward of $200 or $300 for better pumps. You may also find a pump rental at a local hardware store or tool rental company.
  • Generator: If your power is off, you’re likely to need a generator. A generator can create enough electricity to power an electric pump and a few other items. Another high-priced item, you may be able to rent one or find a friend or relative with one you can borrow. If you do end up purchasing one, however, you’ll probably find it useful over the years.
  • Shop-Vac: A Shop-Vac will prove invaluable for sucking up small pools of water, but should never be used in deep floodwaters. Keep in mind that a Shop-Vac runs on electricity, so you’ll need a power source as well.
  • Lights: Candles and oil lamps are too unstable and weak to really do much good. When you’re cleaning up a flood and the electricity is off, make sure you have at least one good light – the more, the better. Choose portable trouble lights, which you can power with a generator or an extension cord run from a nearby neighbor, or high-powered flashlights and other battery-operated light sources.
  • Hip Waders: There’s no telling what is in the floodwater, especially if it results from a lake or other body of water overflowing its boundaries. Even with the best light, you’re not going to be able to see into the water. Hip waders will allow you to wade around in the water during cleanup without getting wet or stepping on debris barefoot. In lower water levels a pair of high waterproof boots may suffice.
  • Gloves: Both rubber gloves and heavy-duty work gloves will come in handy during the flood cleanup. Buy a couple extra pairs in case a pair wears out or extra hands join the work.
  • Safety Wear: A mask – and possibly even goggles – will help protect you from noxious fumes and dangerous contaminants. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on these items. Safety goggles and a dust mask will provide a protective barrier between your eyes, mouth, and the water with most floodwaters, although a respirator is recommended for contaminated water exposure.
  • Dehumidifiers: Even after pumping out excess water, you’re likely to have a lot of humidity inside your home from where water soaked into the wood framing and other items. A good humidifier will help suck the moisture out and prevent mold and mildew growth.
  • Fans: The more fans you use, the better. Air movement will help encourage the area to dry out and prevent further damage.
  • Cleaning Supplies: Don’t forget to stock up on cleaning supplies. You may need a variety of cleaning supplies to get your basement back in order, including mold removal solutions, plastic buckets, spray bottles, scrub brushes, brooms, mops, trash bags and paper towels or cloth rags.

Unfortunately, once the actual floodwater and resulting mud and debris are gone, you’re probably still going to have more work – fixing the interior damage left behind. What tools and supplies you will need for this depends on the way your basement is built and finished. A concrete block wall, for instance, requires little more than cleaning, while a drywall-covered, wood-frame wall will need to have the drywall removed along with any insulation. Flooring may need to be removed unless it’s bare concrete. Make a list of the things that need to be replaced and tackle the finishing only after the area is dry, clean, and all flood-damaged materials are either sanitized or removed. In the meantime, a hammer, pry bar, screwdrivers, pliers and other common household tools will get you through tearing out most building materials.

Knowing the Risks: Flood Water Types

Floodwater can be divided into three types or categories:

Category 1: Known as “clean” water, Category 1 water poses no significant threat to your health and requires the least stringent cleanup efforts. If you can remove the water quickly enough, you don’t need to throw away your carpets or any other undamaged items in your basement. Some building materials, by nature, will probably still need replacement – drywall, many forms of insulation, and anything you cannot dry out rapidly enough, for instance. Note that clean floodwaters will deteriorate over time, leading to high bacteria and fungal counts, including the growth of mold and mildew.

Clean water floods may arise from sources such as burst pipes, overflowing sinks or tubs, broken water heaters, toilet mishaps (given that fecal matter is not present), and melting ice and snow or falling rain.

Category 2: “Gray water,” as it’s commonly called, contains some degree of biological contamination (fungal, bacterial and viral algae) and possibly physical hazards as well, explains Northern Arizona University, and has the potential to make you sick. Unlike clean water flooding, you can’t simply dry out items, remove dirt and mud and call it good. Instead, sanitize hard surfaces such as concrete and glass, rip up permeable materials such as carpeting and drywall that came in contact with the water, and wear some form of facial mask along with other protective wear.

Sources of gray floodwater include washing machine or dishwasher overflows, toilet flooding with urine present (not feces), and water backed up due to a sump pump failure. Note that while gray water is generally murky, the clarity or color of the water is not the determining factor – the origin is. Additionally, gray water left longer than 48 to 72 hours degrades further, into the next category.

Category 3: Known as “black water,” Category 3 floodwater is the worst to have. Black water is heavily contaminated with toxic substances, germs, bacteria, and other hazardous substances. When cleaning black water flooding, the utmost care must be exercised to remove any items that are impossible to clean, then dry and sanitize all other surfaces. Never skimp on personal protective wear when dealing with black water – merely touching contaminated water may result in infection with pathogens such as leptospirosis (although rare) and other diseases that can penetrate the skin.

How common are black water floods? Consider that any flood caused during a natural disaster such as a hurricane, overflowing lakes and rivers, sewage backups, and even significant rainfall that runs across the soil before it enters your home is black water. Keep in mind that it isn’t a given that such water contains deadly germs and bacteria – most infamous diseases caused by floodwater occur in the tropics – but do practice smart safety measures. Also, if you’re unsure about which category of water you are dealing with, treat it as if it is Category 3. It’s always smart to be safe rather than sorry.

Flood Safety

Any flooded structure is potentially dangerous. The house itself may contain hidden dangers, and the cleanup can be more hazardous than it needs to be unless you follow certain safety precautions.

  • Stay out of the house until you are positive it’s safe. No doubt you’re anxious to see the house and contents, and to get to work putting your world right again. But as the saying goes, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Stay out of a flooded home until you inspect the foundation and frame thoroughly. If you’re inside the house when floodwaters break in – as I was when our lake flooded – get out immediately. A flood may break structural members, crack foundations, rip up gas lines, or otherwise make your house unsafe. Before re-entering the home, walk around it looking for cracks, breaks, loose or missing framing members and other signs of damage. If it looks safe, cautiously enter the home, taking note of any subtle signals like doors that don’t close properly, sloping floors, wall cracks and other things that just aren’t right.
  • Remove the floodwater before you enter the home. You think you know your house, but in a flood, you don’t. You often can’t see the floor through the water, and you’re likely to feel a little disoriented. Worse, floodwaters may have flushed debris throughout the area, leaving obstacles you won’t know are there – until you trip over them. The last thing you need is to step off into a sump pump pit or fall for a freezer. Suck out the water before you go in.
  • Use the buddy system. If you simply must enter floodwaters – even clean floodwaters with decent visibility to the floor underneath – have a friend nearby who can help you in the event that an accident happens. Water will make everything slippery and slimy, in addition to hiding obstacles and other hazards. During a flood, remember to always expect the unexpected.
  • Turn off the utilities before entering your home or basement. A flooded basement is an electrocution hazard, even with only an inch of water on the floor, since electrical currents may travel through underground lines or home circuits. If the water level is below the electrical wiring in your walls (as judged by the height of the wall outlets), you can throw down wood planks and, wearing rubber boots and gloves, turn off the electricity at the breaker box when it’s located in the basement. Deep water – or if you have any concern about entering the water – merits calling the electricity company or having an electrician or firefighter pull the face from the electric meter to completely disconnect the house from the grid. Turn off gas flowing to the basement at the meter or have the utility company do it for you. Open windows inside the flooded area to vent gas fumes and avoid open flames of any type if you suspect a gas leak.
  • Pump Slowly. Although you don’t want to leave the water longer than necessary due to the likelihood of it degrading, pumping the water out of your basement too quickly may result in structural failure. In other words, your foundation could crack or the house could potentially collapse. Why? When your basement fills with water, it exerts outward force on the walls. If the soil outside is also saturated, it’s likely pressing inward as well. This hydrostatic pressure is equal – until you begin pumping. Removing the water too quickly can create unequal pressures inside and outside the home, which may result in buckling foundations. Pumping out the water slowly – a foot or two a day, in the worst-case scenario – helps prevent problems. If the fire department pumps out the water or you hire a professional service, they have the ability to pump it much faster. In any event, keep an eye on your ceiling, walls, floor and foundation to spot any signs of damage or instability during the water removal.
  • When in doubt, throw it out. From building materials, furniture and clothing to electrical and mechanical appliances, a lot of things exposed to the floodwaters will need to be discarded. Some things may be sanitized or salvaged, of course. Consider the type of floodwater and the type of surface, and clean anything you keep with a pine-based cleaner, bleach water solution, commercial disinfectant, or by washing with hot water as appropriate. If you’re uncertain, however, simply throw it away or consult a professional restoration service. Same with appliances. Most manufacturers recommend that any appliance exposed to flooding should be replaced. At a minimum, hire a professional service to clean and inspect the appliance before attempting to use it again (your homeowner insurance may require this as well). In addition, flooded wiring, fixtures, switches and outlets should also be inspected and replaced if necessary. Consult a professional for further information.
  • Wash your hands. It might go without saying, but washing your hands is important, especially during a flood cleanup. According to the Centers for Disease Control, while waterborne diseases can infect flood victims through mere skin contact, safe food and drinking water along with proper sanitation and hygiene are far more important. The CDC urges anyone exposed to a flood to wash their hands with soap and clean water – either boiled or disinfected if contaminated – “before preparing or eating food, after toilet use, and after participating in flood cleanup or handling potentially contaminated articles.”

Flood Cleanup Tips and Tricks

Use a few tips and tricks to make the job a little easier. Gradually, you’ll see the house you know emerge from the mud and murk.

  • Come prepared. To start, you will only need the pump, but as soon as the water is gone, you’ll need cleaning supplies and tools to remove and restore any building materials. And of course, turning off the utilities is the first priority. Make sure you are as prepared as possible in order to make the cleanup faster and to prevent needless contamination or risk.
  • Document the damage. Once the water removal begins, take pictures of the flood damage. Include pictures of furnishings, building materials – both close-ups and wider views. Don’t skimp on the photos as they may be important for insurance purposes.
  • Use heat or air conditioning to circulate the air: If your heating system wasn’t exposed to the floodwaters, turn it on and open the windows to vent the moisture. An air conditioner will work even better since it’s designed to remove humidity. Other methods to help speed up the dry time include opening the windows (as long as it isn’t more humid or raining outdoors), turning on exhaust fans (make sure it vents to the outside, not into the attic!), running dehumidifiers (only with the windows closed) and using fans. Make sure that fans don’t blow on the contaminated items – setting them in windows and doors, blowing outward, is better.
  • Assess and tackle the damage. Many types of flooring will need to be ripped up and replaced, depending on the category of floodwater and the type of floor. In a finished basement, drywall typically must be removed from the waterline down. Concrete, however, can be sprayed down and wiped with sanitizing solutions. Wood paneling may be able to be saved if you can dry the area quickly enough. You can either drill holes in the walls to allow air to circulate behind the paneling or cut it away and reattach later. However, it’s often better to start fresh with new materials if at all possible. Remember to sanitize and clean every single square inch of the water-exposed surfaces. Work in grids if necessary.
  • Sort and clean the contents: Some of the items you have to throw away may upset you. Keep your chin up through this process and think positively. Clean and disinfect what you can. What you can’t, inventory for any insurance claims. Contact your insurance adjustor as soon as possible after the flood – preferably before beginning the cleanup. The adjustor may wish to inspect the situation and contents or direct you to preserve certain items. Everything else, bag up and throw away as if it’s contaminated waste.

Once the water is gone, the area is cleaned, and contents are sanitized or discarded, you probably can’t wait to get everything “right” again. Don’t be too fast. Continue your drying efforts for several days to ensure all moisture is gone. Purchase a hygrometer – an instrument that measures air moisture content – to be on the safe side. Watch for mold and mildew growth and tackle as necessary. Only after everything is dry and in good shape should you replace building materials and other furnishings. It will happen soon enough. When it does, your basement will look good again.


Don Lewis - September 6, 2013 at 7:28 am

Thanks for the insight. When Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of my aunt’s home by the Jersey Shore, she was devastated. Fortunately her and her family were safe. After doing some research we were able to find her some reliable professionals of storm damage repair and house raising for NJ residents. They insisted that having your house raised can help protect your home from future flood damage.