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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

After Irene: Dealing with Flood Damage

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, thousands of people in New York, New Jersey, Vermont, and elsewhere have fled flooded homes and businesses. When the waters recede and officials give the OK to return, the dangers don’t automatically subside. Flooding can leave serious health threats in its wake. Gas leaks, electrical shocks, mold, and contaminated water and food can all be debilitating, or even fatal. When you get back home, play it safe by listening to your local authorities and following these guidelines:

After Evacuation
Don’t return home until the area is declared safe by local officials.

Don’t enter your home if you smell gas or if it is still surrounded by floodwaters.

Going Home
Be wary of your footing -- loose boards or slippery tiles may pose a hazard.

Check your home for damage, in particular:
If you smell gas or hear it hissing, open a window and leave immediately.
Turn off the electricity at the fuse box, but only if you are dry and don’t have to stand in water to do so. You may need to have your wiring checked by a professional -- obvious signs of damage include sparks and broken or frayed wires.
Look for cracks in the roof, foundation and chimney. If you’re worried that your home is structurally unsound, leave immediately.
Inspect appliances and unplug any that are wet. They may need to be checked by a professional before being restarted.
Inspect water and sewage pipes for damage. If you find cracks or leaking, turn off the main valve where the water supply enters the house..

In addition, take pictures of any damage for insurance purposes, and contact your agent. Remember to save receipts for all repair and cleaning costs.

For more information, see the Federal Emergency Management Agency's page on returning home.

Cleaning Up
To protect yourself from health hazards posed by mold, be sure to wear:
Goggles without vent holes (to prevent mold getting into your eyes)
An N-95 respirator (protects against mold spores; available at hardware stores)
Gloves (to avoid touching mold)
Long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and boots or work shoes

During clean up:
Throw away anything wet that can't be cleaned.
Clean surfaces using a disinfectant cleanser and dry them thoroughly. Never add bleach to other cleansers.
If you are running a portable generator, avoid carbon monoxide poisoning by keeping it outside, far from your house and your neighbor’s, away from windows and in an area with good air circulation.

For a basic overview, read the Environmental Protection Agency’s guide "Flood Cleanup and the Air in Your Home."

Drinking Water
Check with your local authorities before using any water, because it may be contaminated.

The Food and Drug Administration provides detailed advice on keeping food and water safe after flood conditions. In particular, if you don't have bottled water on hand, boil water for one minute to make sure it's safe to drink, after filtering out any sediment. This will kill most pathogens.

You may also disinfect water by adding 1/8 teaspoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water; stir well, then let stand for a half hour.

After flooding, well water should be tested and disinfected. To find a certified lab, see NRDC’s Smarter Living guides.

Food and Utensils
If you lost power and/or suffered flooding, make sure your refrigerated food is safe:
Discard any food that has or may have come into contact with flood water. Discard damaged canned goods.
Thoroughly wash pans, dishes and utensils using soap and hot water (if available). Rinse and then sanitize by immersing them in clean boiling water or soaking them for 15 minutes in a gallon of clean water mixed with a 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach.
Wash and sanitize countertops the same way.
If you have an appliance thermometer in your freezer, check the temperature when the power comes back on. If the freezer thermometer reads 40°F or below, the food is safe and may be refrozen.
If your freezer doesn't have an appliance thermometer, you will need to check each package for safety. Look for ice crystals -- a sign it’s still cold -- or check the package with a food thermometer to see if it is 40°F or cooler. If it isn’t, discard the item. If it is, go ahead and refreeze it.
Refrigerated food will be safe if the power was out for less than four hours and the refrigerator door was kept shut. But discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs or leftovers) stored above 40°F for two hours or more.

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