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Flood Tips from FEMA

Federal and state disaster officials urge people returning to flood-damaged homes, apartments or businesses to take extra precautions before and during their clean-up efforts.

"The dangers are not over after the water goes down," says Jack Schuback of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "Flood hazards such as a weakened foundation, exposed wires or contaminated floodwater are not always obvious and can be potentially life-threatening if precautions are not taken. If, at any time, you are unsure of or feel uncomfortable with a situation, do not hesitate to ask for help or seek advice from an expert. Play it safe!"

Flood Safety Tips

Disaster officials want people to keep these safety tips in mind:

Before entering a building
  • Check the outside of the building: Call the utility company immediately if you find downed power lines or detect gas leaks. (Gas leaks will emit an odor of rotten eggs.)
  • Look for external damage: Examine the foundation for cracks or other damage. Also examine porch roofs and overhangs to be sure they still have all their supports. Look for gaps between the steps and the house. If any supports or portions of the foundation walls are missing or the ground has washed away, the floor is not safe. If you see obvious damage, have a building inspector check the house before you go in.
  • Enter the building carefully: If the door sticks at the top it could mean the ceiling is ready to fall. If you force the door open, stand outside the doorway, clear of falling debris.
After entering a building
  • Look before you step: The ground and floors are covered with debris including broken bottles and nails. Floors and stairs can be very slippery.
  • Be alert for gas leaks: Do not strike a match or use an open flame when you enter the building, unless you know the gas has been turned off and the area ventilated. Use a flashlight to inspect for damage.
  • Turn off the electricity: Even if the power company has turned off electricity to the area, be sure to disconnect your house's power supply. Do not use appliances or motors that have been wet until they have been taken apart, cleaned and dried.
  • Replace exposed wires: Electrical wires that have been exposed to salt water are recyclable junk and must be replaced.
  • Watch for animals, especially snakes: Small animals that have been flooded out of their homes may seek shelter in yours. Use a stick to poke and turn items over and scare away small animals.
  • Carbon monoxide exhaust kills: Use a generator or other gasoline-powered machine outdoors. The same goes for camping stoves. Charcoal fumes are deadly; cook with charcoal outdoors.
  • Drain your basement carefully: Water in the ground puts pressure on your basement walls and floors. Drain the basement gradually to minimize further structural damage.
  • Hose the house: Most of the health hazards brought by a flood are in the mud and silt that is left after the water drains away. Shovel out as much mud as possible and hose the house down, inside and out.
  • Be aware of health hazards: Flood waters have picked up sewage and chemicals from roads, farms, factories, and storage buildings. Many flooded items, such as wallboard and mattresses, will hold mud and contamination indefinitely. Spoiled food, flooded cosmetics, and medicine are also health hazards. When in doubt, throw them out.

Tips for the care of water-damaged family heirlooms and other valuables

Following a disaster, people often lose family heirlooms and other valuables to water damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has obtained general information and recommendations from the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property (NIC) for homeowners regarding the recovery of water-damaged belongings.

Also see our article on Drying Wet Books & Papers.

Ten Tips for the Homeowner

  1. If the object is still wet, rinse with clear, clean water or a fine hose spray. Clean off dry silt and debris from your belongings with soft brushes or dab with damp cloths without grinding debris into objects.
  2. Air dry objects indoors if possible. Sunlight and heat may dry certain materials too quickly, causing splits, warpage, and buckling.
  3. The best way to inhibit growth of mold and mildew is to reduce humidity. Increase air flow with fans, open windows, air conditioners, and dehumidifiers.
  4. Remove heavy deposits of mold growth from walls, baseboards, floors, and other household surfaces with commercially available disinfectants. Avoid the use of disinfectants on historic wallpapers.
  5. If objects are broken or begin to fall apart, place all broken pieces, bits of veneer, and detached parts in clearly labeled open containers. Do not attempt to repair objects until completely dry or, in the case of important materials, until you have consulted with a professional conservator.
  6. Documents, books, photographs and works of art on paper may be extremely fragile when wet; use caution when handling. Free the edges of prints and paper objects from mats and frames, if possible. These should be allowed to air dry. Rinse mud off wet photographs with clear water, but do not touch surfaces. Sodden books and papers should also be air dried, or may be kept in a refrigerator or freezer until they can be treated by a professional conservator.
  7. Textiles, leather, and other "organic" materials will also be severely affected by exposure to water and should be allowed to air dry.
  8. Remove wet paintings from the frame but not from the stretcher. Air dry, face up, away from direct sunlight.
  9. Furniture finishes and painting surfaces may develop a white haze or bloom from contact with water and humidity. These problems do not require immediate attention. Consult a professional conservator for treatment.
  10. Rinse metal objects exposed to flood waters, mud, or silt with clear water and dry immediately with a clean, soft cloth. Allow heavy mud deposits on large metal objects, such as sculpture, to dry. Caked mud can be removed later. Consult a professional conservator for further treatment.

Because the information given above is general, FEMA, AIC and NIC strongly recommend that professional conservators be consulted as to the appropriate method of treatment for historic objects. Professional conservators may be contacted through the FREE Conservation Services Referral System of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), 1156 15th Street NW, Suite 320, Washington, DC 20005; Tel: 202-452-9545; Fax: 202-452-9328. See AIC website (www.conservation-us.org).

Based on a complete description of the artifact, a computer-generated list of conservators will be compiled and grouped geographically, by specialization, and by type of service provided.

Saving photographs after a flood

As flood victims return to their homes and begin the difficult cleanup, federal officials are offering helpful tips on saving family photographs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is working with the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property (NIC) to make sure flood victims have the benefit of expert advice.

"Photographs and photo albums are often the only records of momentous occasions like weddings, birthdays and graduations," Sarah Wagner, senior photograph conservator at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) says. " If the flood has damaged them, saving them may be possible. Remember that if flood waters did not damage the negatives, you can make new prints anytime."

Damaged photographs for which there are no negatives should receive attention first. Once photographs have stuck together or become moldy, saving them may not be possible. Handle wet photos carefully; the surfaces may be fragile. Wet photos may be rinsed in clean water (if needed) and sealed in a plastic garbage bag with a tie or a Zip-Lock type plastic bag. If possible, put wax paper between each photo. If a freezer is available, freeze the photos immediately. Later, photos may be defrosted, separated and air-dried.

If no freezer or refrigerator is available, rinse wet photos in clean water and dry them, face up, in a single layer on a clean surface (a table, window screen or clean plastic laid out on the ground). Avoid drying the photos in direct sunlight. Don't worry if the photos curl as they dry. A photo expert can be contacted later about flattening them.

"Conservators can help you with severely damaged and valuable materials," Wagner says. "The American Institute for Conservation has a free referral service to help people find experts in their area."

Sources: "Cleaning Flood-Damaged Homes Can Involve Hidden Dangers" FEMA.gov. Modified: December 12, 2003,
and "Saving Photographs After The Flood" FEMA.gov. Modified: August 11, 2010.

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