With all the floods occurring on the East Coast and the prospect of more to come this winter, I thought it might be a good time to post information about cleaning up after a flood. Now of cause how much of this applies to you depends on how severe the flood affected your home.
Once the floodwaters have receded and the property can be accessed safely, you should begin cleanup. The most important steps are to restore the environment to a dry state and salvage any valuable property. The longer that water/waste are allowed to remain in your home or on your property, the greater the potential for illness and irreparable damage to your home and its contents. If you have the use of pumps and dehumidifiers, they will be helpful in restoring dry conditions. After a flood, you should consider that the floodwater is contaminated with sewage. During flood cleanups, regardless of the source of the water, one should assume that pathogens are present and take appropriate precautions.
The survival of pathogens depends on a number of factors: location (indoors vs. outdoors), season, type of surface contaminated, whether disinfectants are used, and also on environmental conditions such as humidity, temperature, and sunlight. Sunlight (UV radiation) reduces the survival rate of pathogens with numbers decreasing rapidly with increasing exposure to UV radiation. Mild temperatures and higher humidity in external situations result in longer survival times. The simple act of laying items out in bright sunlight can reduce the survival rate of pathogens.
Prior to undertaking cleanup efforts, protect yourself:
Always wear protective gloves, eyewear, and boots. Rain gear is also advisable. Avoid direct contact with sewage material, and be particularly careful of your face and eyes. Goggles are recommended when using a hose and/or any chemicals. Protect all cuts and scrapes. Immediately wash and disinfect any wound that comes in contact with sewage.
The following steps should be taken to mitigate the microbial risk from a building contaminated by a flood.
- Any excess water should be removed from the property by pumps, wet vacs, or mopping. Dehumidifiers and active ventilation should also be used when available.
- All upholstered furniture and mattresses should be discarded, other contaminated furniture should be removed and cleaned or discarded.
- The affected areas should be washed with a detergent solution to remove flood-related contamination, then disinfected and allowed to dry.
Sort damaged contents into piles to be repaired or discarded. Use the following guide for discarding of household material and furnishings.
- Foam rubber
- Large carpets
- Books and paper products
- Always Discard
- Stuffed animals
- Mattresses and pillows
- Upholstered couches and chairs
- Carpet padding
- Medicines and medical supplies, unless completely sealed in watertight containers and then properly disinfected.
Food after a flood
Food is always a problem because it may be in short supply. What do you do with your food after your home or basement has flooded? First, do not eat any food that has come in contact with floodwater.
Get rid of the following types of food.
- Opened containers and packages which have come in contact with floodwaters.
- Unopened jars and bottles with screw top lids such as those containing mayonnaise or salad dressing. The water will get up into the threads and you cannot decontaminate them.
- Any foods in paper, cloth, fiber or cardboard boxes, even if the contents seem dry. This includes salt, cereals, pasta products, rice and any sealed packages of crackers, cookies or mixes.
- Dented seams, bulging, rusty or leaking tin cans.
- Home-canned foods, this is a bit more controversial. While water can get under the threads, you can remove the locking rings and if the seal is still good, you may be able to decontaminate the jars. The government advises getting rid of them.
Products properly sealed in cans or foil pouches can be used after the container is rinsed with clean water and immersed for 15 minutes in a freshly made solution consisting of 1 quarter cup of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of clean water. The containers should be completely air-dried before opening or storing. If you lack bleach, you can submerge the cans in boiling water.
One of the problems you would encounter is the fact that the labels would be damaged or destroyed. This would present a problem in identifying the contents of your cans. You would have food to eat, but you might have a strange menu.
Water for drinking and cooking
Try to avoid using any of the floodwater for drinking. In an emergency if you are forced to use it for drinking or cooking, disinfect it by the best method you have available. My first choice would be boiling combined with filtration. Use a good filter like a Berkey, Katadyn or equivalent. Consider that the water you are dealing with is close to raw sewage and don’t cut corners.
Disinfecting after a flood
Disinfectants are typically chemical agents that reduce significant numbers of pathogens to levels below those expected to cause disease. Cleaning and disinfection are two different processes. Cleaning removes the dirt. The processes of disinfection and decontamination are important to ensure the elimination of pathogens and organisms that were contained in the sewage or that grew during the period of contamination. Even concrete can be colonized and broken down by microorganisms if it is allowed to remain wet and contaminated by organic matter.
Many household products are capable of disinfecting surfaces and should be used in accordance with manufacturer’s label directions. A household bleach solution is also an effective disinfection agent, and can be made by combining one quarter cup of household bleach to one gallon of water. Bleach should never be used directly without dilution since, in this concentrated form; the bleach can cause severe skin and respiratory hazards.
To prepare surfaces for disinfection, wash surfaces first with warm soapy water and rinse surface. Apply the disinfectant solution to all areas of the affected surface, and allow for sufficient contact and drying time.
When proceeding with cleanup operations, remember that those individuals whose immune systems are in some way compromised or who are otherwise susceptible due to age, medication, or underlying illness, are considered to be at greater risk of contracting infections than those individuals who are healthy.
Cleanup of External Areas
The majority of the microbial population from sewage backups onto lawns, tarmac and paved areas will be inactivated within several days due to exposure to UV radiation from sunlight. A disinfectant can be used on tarmac and paved areas. Contamination on grass could be left to degrade naturally. Typically, bacterial numbers on turf are reduced to background levels expected in the environment within 13 days, but can extend to 20 days on soil and sand in the autumn and spring. Generally, the least absorbent or pervious surfaces absorb the least bacterial concentrations and return to background levels the quickest.
After a flood, if things can be easily replaced get rid of them. After TEOTWAWKI, the problem becomes much harder. Use your head and salvage what you can, but don’t make yourself sick by taking to many chances.