With Harvey and Irma gone, folks in Texas and Florida are finally starting to return home. Unfortunately, for thousands of families, their homes have been ravaged by flood waters, rain and wind. To help families stay safe, we at ConsumerSafety.org have compiled a list of post-storm home safety tips.
To all those in the affected areas: You are in our thoughts. We encourage you to contact FEMA with any additional questions about your specific situation.
For those who are not in immediate danger, or who may have more general questions about safety concerns related to their home that does not require specialized assistance, read our tips and information below.
When NOT to Go Home
Even though the storm has passed, it may not yet be safe. Before deciding whether to make the trip back to your house, it is important to find out as much as possible about the area from news reports, neighbors, and others who may be able to offer help.
Safety Checklist for Returning Home
- Is the area safe? – Even if your home is on high ground or otherwise out of the most devastated areas, the route to get there may still be unsafe. There may also be downed power lines or other dangers that present a deadly risk.
- Is your house or home unsafe? – Although your city or neighborhood might be deemed safe, your individual home might have sustained damage that could leave it structurally unsound or otherwise unsafe.
- Do flood waters still surround your home? – You risk exposing yourself to bacterial or viral infections and other diseases associated with standing flood waters. Also, draining flood waters can create currents that could sweep people and vehicles away.
- Do you smell natural gas? – If this happens, leave the area and call your local gas company immediately, or contact emergency services activated during the storm.
If your house passes all of the conditions outlined above, then it may be safe to return home. However, there are still some precautions you will want to take.
Preparing to Enter Your Home
After a devastating storm or another natural disaster, it is a good idea to have a home inspector visit to tell you about any potentially unsafe conditions left behind. That may not be feasible for everyone immediately, whether due to cost, the high demand for qualified inspectors, or some other reason.
If you do decide to return home, keep the be sure to take the following safety measures:
Inspect Foundation and Structure
- Check for cracks, crumbling, and other signs of damage or deterioration around the base of your home.
- Examine the external walls, windows, and entryways for indications of stress or weakness, such as broken windowpanes or slanted door jambs.
- From the ground, visually inspect the roof to see if there is any damage, such as holes or gaps.
- When in doubt, call a professional to evaluate the safety of the structure before entering.
Wear Protective Gear
- Wear waterproof, rubber-soled boots to avoid direct contact with any standing water.
- Use a dust mask to filter dust and airborne contaminants like asbestos or paint dust.
- Wear protective gloves, as water and refuse may have hidden dangers, especially corners and sharp objects.
- Put on safety goggles or glasses to protect your eyes.
Turn Off the Electricity, Gas and Water
- Turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker, if it is not already turned off.
- Close the water main, if it is not already closed.
- Turn off the gas, if it is not already turned off.
- Look around the property for downed lines (power, phone, cable, etc.) and damaged water or gas pipes
Once you have taken the above precautions and resolved any potential safety issues, you can begin inspecting the interior of your home.
Inside Your Home
Going through your home after a severe storm can be an emotional experience, especially if the exterior was breached and the storm damaged the interior. The best approach in such situations is to be as methodical as possible, going room by room as you inspect the damage.
Approach Debris with Caution
In addition to potential injury or illness caused by contamination, debris can become a hiding place for snakes, rats, or other critters that sought shelter during the storm. Use a stick to poke any piles of debris and scare away anything that might be hiding in the pile. If nothing scampers out, proceed with caution, and be wary of sharp edges.
Catalogue the Damage
If you are making an insurance claim, you will need to document as much of the destruction as you can. Use a camera to take photos of each room and any unsalvageable belongings – while you could use the camera on your phone, you may want to save your phone battery, especially if the electricity is turned off. In addition, you may want to use a notepad to write down as much information about each damaged item as possible, such as the condition you found it in.
Salvageable belongings should be catalogued and kept separate from trash and other debris. Each item should be thoroughly cleaned before being restored to its place in your home. Be realistic about what is salvageable. Throwing away a personal possession is painful, but the risk of keeping a contaminated or otherwise dangerous item is too great.
As you go room by room, unplug each and every appliance and electrical device. Then, set them somewhere to dry out completely. Wet appliances and electronics can cause shocks or start fires, so it is important to make sure there is no water in them before using them again. When in doubt, have a professional evaluate the appliance or device before using it again. For items that are unfixable, follow your local area’s rules and regulations with respect to recycling or disposing of electronics.
Toss Food and Water
Food and water contaminated by flood waters is unsafe to eat. Often, flood waters are contaminated by sewage, and eating contaminated food will have a serious risk of developing disease. Additionally, do not wash with, drink, or prepare food with tap water until your water has been declared safe by local authorities, as tap water can also be contaminated. Your local authorities may issue a directive to boil or filter water, with instructions, but if not, it likely indicates that there are contaminants in the water that cannot be removed by boiling or filtering. Ingesting these contaminants could have serious health risks.
Wildlife in Your Home
During the storm, animals may take refuge in your home, especially in upper levels, and they often remain after the storm has passed. DO NOT attempt to corner or catch wild animals. This may make them feel threatened, causing them to lash out, attack, or enter floodwaters that would be dangerous for them, too. Instead, open a nearby window or door to give the animals an accessible exit. If the animal chooses to remain, call your local animal control authorities for assistance.
If water is still in your home, you can use buckets, wet-vacs, or other tools implements to remove it. However, be sure to first take care of any water that could be entering the home, such as through backed-up sewers, busted water pipes, or external standing water. Also, when removing water from the basement, it is best to do it gradually, as the the walls may collapse and the floor may buckle if the basement is pumped out while the surrounding ground is still waterlogged.
While returning to a storm-damaged home can be disheartening, it can also be an opportunity to start over and make sure your house – and your family – is safer than ever. Use the opportunity to learn from the weaknesses of your home, and when renovating or rebuilding, think ahead and do everything you can to help your home survive another storm.
While no home is storm-proof, it is possible to fortify your home against major storms, including hurricanes, in the future. Speak with a contractor about how best to rebuild your home, and be sure to check whether your city has any recommendations or regulations.