Monday, October 20, 2008

Ben's Guide for a Flooded House

On September 12, 2008, my parents' home in Bridge City, Texas was flooded by the storm surge driven ashore by Hurricane Ike. On September 16 and through the rest of the week, I accompanied my parents as they re-entered their home, attempted to salvage their belongings, and began to remediate the damage to their house. This the advice I can give to those in similar circumstances, based on that experience. I am not a lawyer, an accountant, a tax professional, or an insurance professional, so please take this as one guy's observations.

Emotional Preparation

We were extremely fortunate to have spent the night prior to the return home with friends who had had six feet of water in their house a decade before. Their advice was invaluable, as it set our expectations and prepared us emotionally for what we would encounter.
  1. Your house will be covered in mud. The water is not clean. Any surface that came in contact with floodwaters will also be dirty. Your white carpets will be black. Your countertops and walls may also be coated with nasty dirt.
  2. Your house will stink. Again, the water is not clean. The floodwaters are full of organic substances of one kind or another. These may range from algae sea grass, to dead shrimp and fish, to goat carcasses. Immediately after the flood, this stuff starts to smell, and the smell only gets worse. Two weeks after the flood, even fabric soaked in floodwaters were nausea-inducing.
  3. Your possessions will be scattered. The floodwaters will float things through your house at random. Items on the kitchen floor will be in your bedroom, the kitty litter box will be in the office, while the spare hard-drive enclosure will be in the guest bath. If the floodwaters reached a couple of feet, furniture will have overturned, including appliances like refrigerators. Any plastic containers (Rubbermaid drawers, Sterilite wrapping-paper trays) will be heaped in the corners of rooms where they landed.
  4. Some things will be untouched. Our friends told the story of a candy dish that had floated from their china cabinet up near the ceiling, then came to rest on a windowsill. The mints were perfectly dry. Expect similar bizarre survivals.
  5. Some things are recoverable. It's hard to express how reassuring it is to have placed your hand on a table that you know was submerged in floodwaters. Even though your possessions are a jumbled, stinking mess, some of them will be as good as they were before if you try to save them.

Conflicting Priorities

A lot of the immediate stress of returning to a flooded house is due to the impossibility of balancing three equally-important priorities:
  1. Save everything you can, as quickly as possible! Many of your possessions may not have been ruined by the flood, but they'll be ruined in days if you don't act immediately. Every surface inside a flooded house feels like the outside of a glass of iced tea on a Houston afternoon. Mold fibers grow noticeably over the course of hours. Any paper, paintings, or clothes that escaped direct contact with the water must be removed immediately, not least because flood insurance does not cover them.
  2. Remove the damp material, as quickly as possible! Anything that contains water must be removed from the house to halt its deterioration. All carpet must be ripped out. Any upholstered furniture must go. Drywall, paneling, insulation, built-in cabinets, and tub surrounds must be removed. Failure to halt the damage will encourage mold and probably have negative effects on your insurance settlement.
  3. Record everything! You need someone with a camera and a notepad recording everything that comes out of your house. This is the record that you'll need for insurance, for FEMA, and for casualty losses on your income taxes. Even if you don't have flood insurance, failing to write down your losses will prevent you from deducting them on your tax return.
As should be obvious, each of these priorities conflicts directly with each of the others. You will be under terrible pressure, and you will make mistakes. Be prepared to come up with a new plan every day in light of the previous day's work.

Salvage Priorities

You'll be able to salvage most things untouched by floodwaters (and you'll need to, since insurance won't pay for them). You'll also be able to salvage dishes, non-aluminum cookware, and solid wood furniture. However, there are a few tricks that I wish we'd understood beforehand. Here are the steps I'd recommend to salvage, in light of hindsight:
  1. Pull the lower drawers from wood furniture. The contents of submerged drawers will swell, ruining the dressers and desks they're in. It's time-critical to remove any drawers that haven't swollen shut yet and dump their contents out. If you do, you may be able to save the piece.
  2. Remove important papers from submerged filing cabinets. Before the swelling happens, you can separate sheets of paper and lay them in the sun to dry. After the swelling, it's a smelly mass of fiber you can do nothing with.
  3. Remove un-soaked paper. This includes books, diplomas, paintings and pictures. The condensation is like nothing you've ever seen, so every day matters here.
  4. Remove solid-wood furniture in contact with wet carpet. Do NOT set it in the sun. Solid wood furniture can be reclaimed, but not if it's in contact with flooded carpets. We had a heirloom bed frame disassembled under a bed which we tried to reclaim this way. Unfortunately we set it in the sun to dry and planks started to warp and twist. If you have a dry place indoors to set them or can rent a climate-controlled storage unit, they should dry out within 4-6 weeks. Some recommend washing off the grime immediately, but we didn't think we had the time for that.
  5. Remove un-soaked clothes. The easiest way to do this is to remove entire drawers from cabinets and take down clothes from the closets. We found that this stuff needed minimal cleaning.
  6. Remove, wash, and triage soaked clothes. Flood waters have chemicals in them, including chlorine from your neighbors' pools. In addition, the waters cause fabric dyes to run into each other. That said, some of your soaked clothes can be saved by washing them soon after the floods.


Floods are real catastrophes -- I had never experienced the like, and hope I never will again. I hope my advice won't steer anyone in the wrong direction, and that maybe it helps someone out. There are some great resources online -- search for "reenter flooded home" for a lot of good links.