What to do if your house floods


Floods are the most common natural disaster in the United States. And climate change is projected to make the problem worse: Future floods are expected to be bigger and more frequent.

Property owners in New Jersey and Delaware face some of the highest risks in the nation for flooding over the next few decades, according to First Street Foundation. The nonprofit, focusing on flood risk research, says that’s thanks to rising temperatures in the atmosphere and oceans causing hurricanes to reach further north.

If your house floods, no matter it happens, you can rest assured you’re not the only one dealing with this. Here’s what to do about it.

Does my insurance cover it?

Here’s the reality: If you have one inch of water in your home, fixing the damage can cost about $27,000, says the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Flood insurance can help. Experts recommend buying flood insurance if you own a home, no matter where you live. More than 20% of flood claims come from properties outside high-risk flood zones, FEMA reports, and most homeowners and renters insurance doesn’t cover flood damage.

But remember, it’s not just weather that causes flooding. Plumbing mishaps and clogged gutters can cause floods, too. But, the good news: Your homeowners insurance will take care of some of this. Most policies cover sudden water damage, like an unexpected broken pipe. The exception: Damages caused by lack of maintenance, like a slow leak that’s been trickling for weeks, aren’t typically covered.

What to do first

Depending on the source and severity of the flood, you may need to relocate immediately and deal with the damage later. In the case of a natural disaster, try your best to contact local authorities, and seek out a temporary shelter if needed.

When it’s safe to return indoors, the City of Philadelphia’s Flood Guide says that your first step is turning off the electricity to the area that’s been flooded. If you can’t access your circuit breaker without walking through water, call an electrician. Until the electricity is turned off, the water could cause electrical shocks.

If flooding is coming from a water source inside your own home, immediately locate your main water valve and turn it off.

Document the damage

Pull out your smartphone or camera before diving into cleaning. If you have insurance, photos and videos will help support your claim when you file. Document both damages to the house and its contents. (If renting, call your landlord immediately.)

American Red Cross has some additional details on what to document for an insurance claim.

Safety remains the priority here. Gear up with rubber boots and gloves before going into an area that’s been flooded. Floodwaters can carry sewage and other hazardous materials.

Pump out the water

The first step in the cleaning process: Eliminating any remaining standing water by pumping, mopping, and/or opening clogged drains.

When pumping out a flooded basement, do it in stages. You also want to wait until there’s no standing water left in the yard around your home. Pumping too early or too fast could cause structural damage to your home.

When you pump water out all at once, pressure from water-saturated soil on the outside of your home may cause your basement walls to collapse. The Red Cross recommends pumping about one-third of the water per day.

Disinfect the area

After cleaning up the water, it’s time to start cleaning everything else. Again, wear protective gear, and open any windows or doors to improve ventilation.

Depending on the situation, floodwater may be contaminated with sewage or other dangerous bacteria. Be prepared to toss a lot, and take breaks when you need them. It’s normal for this process to feel overwhelming, both physically and emotionally.

Throw away food, medicine, and drinks that may have come in contact with floodwater. This includes canned goods, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples, and containers with food or liquid that has been sealed shut. “When in doubt, throw it out,” says the Red Cross.

Also toss items that absorb water and can’t be disinfected, like mattresses, cosmetics, stuffed animals, baby toys, and paper products. If you’re filing an insurance claim, store everything temporarily outside your home. You want to hang onto damaged items until your claim is processed.

Dispose of all wet ceiling tiles, wet insulation, baseboards, and drywall to a level roughly four feet above the flood water line, says the City’s Flood Guide. You may also need to rip up your carpet. You can try saving it by wet vacuuming and shampooing it, but if it isn’t able to dry completely, it needs to go.

Then it’s time to salvage what remains. Sanitize anything that was touched or may have been splashed by floodwater, including counters, cabinets, work surfaces, utensils, cookware, and toys. The City’s Flood Guide recommends using soap and water first, and then wiping down surfaces with a diluted bleach solution, made from one gallon of clean water mixed with 1/4 cup of bleach. Use the bleach to also wipe down wood and metal studs, twice over, before allowing them to air dry.

Preventing mold

If a flooded area isn’t taken care of properly, it will haunt you long after you’re finished cleaning up. Mold can harm both your furnishings and your health.

Mildew and mold develops within 24 to 48 hours of water exposure and will continue to grow until the source of moisture is eliminated, says FEMA.

This makes it important to clean and dry the flooded area as soon as possible. It’s also one reason why you have to remove porous, slow-to-dry materials, like drywall, ceiling tiles, carpeting, and upholstery.

When finished cleaning, use fans and dehumidifiers to speed up drying times.

If mold develops, deal with it immediately. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advice for getting rid of it yourself. Depending on the severity, and whether or not you’re immunocompromised, you may need to hire a professional mold remediation service. The CDC advises that you also get your heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning system (HVAC) checked. If the system was flooded with water or becomes infiltrated with mold, turning it on will spread mold throughout your house, and you’ll need a professional to clean it.

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