After the Flood, It's a Race Against Rust, Mold and Mildew

The remnants of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 brought tornados and rain, including this funnel cloud, to Virginia and Maryland.
The remnants of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 brought tornados and rain, including this funnel cloud, to Virginia and Maryland. (By Rick Fulks -- Associated Press)
By Jeanne Huber
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 4, 2005

Q In the midst of a strong hurricane season, several neighbors watched the spinoff from Tropical Storm Cindy flood their basements last month. What should I do if that happens to me?

A It's wise to contemplate this possibility beforehand. If your house floods from a burst water pipe, you can call in professional help. But in the aftermath of a powerful storm, so many houses are likely to be flooded that you may have to cope on your own, at least at first. When outside help does arrive, there's no guarantee of quality.

In any flooding situation, you first need to deal with safety issues, such as turning off power to circuits that might be damp. Also investigate whether the floodwater is likely to be contaminated with disease organisms. If the water merely seeped through walls, you probably don't have to worry. If it got deep enough to flood a basement toilet, you do. Wear gloves and boots, and make sure your tetanus shots are up to date.

Before wading in to begin the actual cleanup, take a few minutes to come up with a game plan. Some materials are wrecked by exposure to water, but most can readily be cleaned and dried out. However, it's a race against time. You have 24 to 48 hours, depending on the temperature and humidity, before mold and mildew (both forms of fungi) will begin to grow. Focus on things that matter most to you.

Your first priority should be to prevent damage to items that aren't yet soaked. If you have a stack of cardboard boxes on the basement floor, for example, move any that are still dry to a higher level in your house. Otherwise, moisture will wick up and dampen them all.

Next, get out as much water as you can. If there is just an inch or two on the floor, use a shop vac to suck it up, but empty the reservoir well before it's full so it doesn't become too heavy to lift.

If water is deeper, a submersible pump is a better option because you can connect a hose to the discharge pipe. But proceed cautiously so that the water pressure on the inside and the outside of the basement walls stays equal.

If you pump too fast, the walls may collapse. Pump out one foot of water, mark the spot and wait overnight. If the water is higher in the morning, wait a day, then repeat this process. When water no longer rises over the mark, you can pump out two or three feet per day.

When the standing water is gone, set up oscillating fans and switch on an air conditioner upstairs, if you have one. (Air conditioners are powerful dehumidifiers.) Focus on drying out the area, rather than aiming fans at individual items. Pieces that dry unevenly are more likely to be damaged permanently, and you need to dry out the basement itself.

If you have a finished basement, try calling a company that specializes in drying out homes and furnishings, which you can find in the phone book under "Fire and Water Damage Restoration." If these companies aren't already booked, they can bring especially powerful fans that can dry out carpeting and even upholstered furniture right in place.

One of the problems with wet basements is simply the huge quantity of materials often stored there. If your basement is stuffed, establish a plan and call in help from friends or family. Rescue items with high sentimental or monetary value first. You can freeze damp photographs, books or textiles until you have more time or can seek assistance from a professional conservator. Toss easily replaceable food, if you must, to make room in the freezer.

Once you've dealt with these, move on to materials where quick action pays off. You can save metal items if they dry before rust sets in. It's possible to save damp books, but the process involves placing sheets of paper between pages to keep them from sticking together. A few out-of-print books might warrant this care, but volumes that are easy to replace probably do not.

Furniture made of solid wood or plywood may warp, but when the fibers dry, the parts usually shrink back to their original position. So these pieces are good candidates for care. Slow, even drying minimizes problems. Don't bother with pieces made of particleboard or with veneer over particleboard, because once it swells, it stays that way.

If you have a laundry area, a freezer or a spare refrigerator in the basement, move appliances out from the wall and use a Shop Vac under them to dry out the floor and remove lint or other materials where mildew might grow. If the water was deep enough to submerge the motors, don't use the appliances until a repair technician checks them.

If you store lawn chemicals, ant bait or other pesticides, remove any products in cardboard boxes or rusted metal containers. Put these in a safe place until you can dispose of them as your garbage company or municipal solid-waste office recommends.

Once you have removed whatever is salvageable or hazardous, look through the remainder and see what you can recycle, including damp papers and metal that has begun to rust.

When the space is clear, attend to the structure itself. If you have a finished basement, you have a lot of work ahead. Soaked drywall usually mildews, so you need to remove all of it or leave only what's at least 12 inches above the water line, whichever is easier. Carpet and padding often will need to be replaced. So does laminate-type flooring, which has a particleboard core.

There is a reason early builders left basements unfinished. Unadorned, they usually dry out just fine, as long as you leave a fan on long enough.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company