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Repairing the damage Sandy did to your home

Jackie Hoey inspects the first floor of her

Jackie Hoey inspects the first floor of her Long Beach home, which was heavily damaged by flooding from megastorm Sandy. Those experienced with such damage, advise taking a deep breath and making a plan and being patient. (Oct. 31. 2012) Credit: Getty Images

Victims of flooding in the Northeast wrought by superstorm Sandy have a long road to recovery ahead. Here's a guide to repairing flooded homes written by staffers of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, who survived Hurricane Katrina. It was first published Sept. 17, 2005, and has been slightly adapted and updated here.

The articles -- written by Karen Taylor Gist, Renee Peck and Judy Walker -- contain information from The Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency, interviews with contractors, structural engineers, industrial hygienists, insurance adjusters and residents who have previously mitigated after hurricanes and floods:

What to save, what to pitch

Home repair in the wake of catastrophic flooding is enough to boggle the brain. Ruined food is the common denominator of damage, but past that, other things seem to come in layers. Wet wood that sat in 2 feet of rainwater for two days is usually salvageable, but wood that soaked in 6 feet of toxic water for three weeks may not be. What can be saved and what must be bulldozed, and conditions will vary widely from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Dealing with mold

Air-conditioning can be an important tool in drying things out, but experts advise against turning it on until it can be checked for electrical damage and the ducts cleaned of mold spores and other potential health irritants. After spending a couple of weeks unchallenged, mold is likely not only to coat your walls but to threaten your health as well.

One thing is clear: Each plan of action depends on the homeowner's specific circumstances, and those are only apparent after you go home again.

Here's an overview of what you should plan for if your house has less than catastrophic damage.

Re-enter carefully

You may have been away for a while and might be eager to get back inside your house. But experts warn that patience is important: Enter your home only after examining the exterior for structural damage and evidence of gas leaks. If there is evidence of the latter, retreat to a safe distance and call your natural gas provider, who will give you further instructions. If there is obvious structural damage, you won't want to go inside until a building inspector can assure you that it's safe.

When you're ready to go inside, treat the entry like TV characters working a crime scene: Use a face mask (to protect your lungs from mold and other allergens); gloves (to protect your skin from infectious residue); and a camera (to document damage to your home and belongings for your insurance company). Take pictures before you move anything, and include close-ups.

The extent of the damage will depend on the depth, duration and velocity of the floodwaters, says Bill Coulbourne, a structural engineer in charge of risk management services for Citigate Sard and Verbinnen. Velocity likely will be a problem only where fast-moving water may have scored the homes' foundations, undermining them and causing potential settling. Depth will be a more widespread problem, affecting everything from floors and framing to power and plumbing.

"You don't have to have water very far off the floor to do electrical damage," Coulbourne says. "The same is true of air-conditioning and heating systems."

Chris Paul of Paul Davis Restoration in Alexandria, Va., who is certified in mitigation and remediation for mold, fire and water damage, says floodwater is divided into three grades: clean water (washing machine hose breaks, tub overflows, etc.); gray water (toilet backs up before flushing, etc.); and black water (floodwater containing bacteria and pathogens). Rain that entered homes through roof gashes qualifies as clean water, which is easier to mitigate. However, if that water was left standing for weeks, Paul still recommends using gloves and face masks when cleaning up residue.

Mold: It's inevitable

Forty-eight hours. If you had water in your house for at least that long, you can expect to find a house filled with mold.

"Mold remediation is a big job," says Jeff Pothast, a certified industrial hygienist from Colorado who specializes in mold removal.

Despite the occasional alarmist overreaction to the presence of "toxic mold," the presence of mold is not a fatal blow to every home. "I've seen three-story houses stripped back to bare studs, then restored," Pothast says.

But in combination with other factors, it may be more practical to rebuild a mold-infested house than to clean it.

"A house that was fully impacted by floodwater is probably going to be cheaper to tear down and rebuild than remodel," says Martin King, technical adviser to the Association of Specialists in Cleaning and Restoration. "If you have to strip the interior completely, it's often not economically feasible to salvage the house. Wood framing should survive flooding, but on a square-foot basis, it's more expensive to repair and remodel than to build new construction."

If structural damage is less severe, he says, a germicide should be used to clean exposed framing, studs and the like. Paul suggests putting furniture up on blocks or moving it to a dry room. It is possible to extract water from carpet.

"If it's been sitting four or five days, you want to just get it out of there," King says. "It's a hundred times easier to physically remove water than to dry it out. Take [wet] carpet out or the substructure will start buckling."

As for your refrigerator: If it has been sitting in floodwater for days or weeks, it can't be salvaged. If it simply sat without power for a few weeks, it may be. In either case, whatever you do: Don't open it. The fridge likely leaked, and the fate of the floor beneath it depends on the material it's made from. Ceramic tile is nonporous, so it can be cleaned as usual, although the grout, which is porous, may require special effort.

Linoleum lets water in around the edges, and must be removed for the subfloor to dry. Nonporous materials, such as Corian countertops or stainless steel, can be cleaned.

The stink

For lingering smells, Paul recommends using a machine that puts ozonated oxygen into the air, microscopic particles that get down into the pores of furniture, draperies and other interior fabrics and surfaces to root out odors.

Damp drywall must be removed as quickly as possible, taking with it odors and at least a portion of humidity.

"There's a lot of secondary damage from humidity," Paul says. "I've walked into houses before that only had 2 inches of water but the ceiling was dripping because of the humidity, probably four days later."

The Environmental Protection Agency points out some health risks associated with humidity: Long-term increase in humidity can foster growth of dust mites, a major cause of allergies and asthma, and microorganisms that cause allergic reactions can grow in standing water, even if it came from rain.

King cautions those determined do-it-yourselfers to "start off on the right foot by removing the things that need to be removed. Don't try to save anything you're doubtful about. Even bathroom fixtures are probably going to have to be removed and cleaned, although they can probably be reinstalled. Even if you don't see surface damage, you should open walls and ceilings to inspect for mildew."

Don't count on air-conditioning to make things any easier.

"It's better to leave it off [until it can be serviced]," Paul says. "The humidity will have found its way to the vents. If mold is growing in your living room, it can be growing in the vents, too. And if you have mold on the lower drywall, you could be recirculating mold spores. Have the ducts cleaned before you use it."

Involve your insurance agent

Every decision you make about the mitigation of your property should be made in consultation with your insurance agent or adjuster.  Bill Bailey managing director of the Hurricane Insurance Information Center, says the speed of your settlement will depend on how quickly you get confirmation of damages.

"Once you start picking up the trash, the adjusters show up the day afterward," he says.

It can't be stressed enough to document the damage with photos, particularly before attempting to rearrange or repair parts of your home yourself.

"Not that anyone's saying you're a crook," Bailey says. "Companies require verification to give damages."

When hiring professionals to help with clean up or repairs, Bailey's golden rule is: Trust, but verify. "Don't sign contracts until after contacting your agent," he says. "An insurer might say, 'We'll pay $107 per square foot for roofing materials,' but the contractor may quote $200."

In a high-demand environment such as the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, a gap often exists between the going rate for labor and materials and the insurance company's normal and customary rates for reimbursement. You're stuck in the middle. Be prepared to negotiate.

"It's possible that the insurance company lowballed because it didn't take into account normal price increases, but check first,"  Bailey says. "Rule No. 1 is do not give any contractor money up front until you've checked them out thoroughly. They should tell you what it's going for, and they should show you they've used your money to buy what they need to fix your roof. Not everyone can dig into his own pockets (for the materials upfront). If they expect you to put up money, make darn sure the money went to your materials and it went to your property."

Also, verify that contractors have proof of insurance, he advises.

Some homes will be beyond repair. The insurance adjuster will make that call, based on the percent of the property that's left intact.

First things first

If you haven't talked to your insurance agent yet, redouble your efforts to do so. Find out exactly what documentation is needed for reimbursement -- some companies may ask you to keep a piece of your soggy carpet, for example, to prove loss -- and how much work you may and may not do on the property before the adjuster arrives.

Stay sane ...

Prepare yourself emotionally. Have Kleenex ready, and a shoulder to cry on.

Set a realistic and manageable schedule. Don't try to rehabilitate your house in one day

Keep the family together, but don't take infants (they tend to put things in their mouths), anyone who is pregnant or has health problems, or pets.

... And stay safe

Injuries from chain saws and carbon monoxide poisoning are common during recovery efforts. Take every precaution.

Don't enter a building that has serious structural damage or signs of imminent collapse.

If you smell gas or suspect a leak, retreat to a safe distance and call authorities immediately.

Wear protective clothing and rubber gloves when cleaning. If there has been a backflow of sewage in the house, wear goggles, rubber boots and rubber gloves.

Disconnect main electrical switches and circuits.

Remove covers from all outlets and fuses or multibreaker boxes.

Snakes and vermin are often present after hurricanes and floods. Stay away from feral animals that may be rabid. Do not combine ammonia and bleach as a cleaning agent.

Never use generators, pressure washers or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or burning devices inside your home, basement, garage or camper, or even outside near a window, door or vent. Carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless and can build up inside and poison people and animals.

Wash skin that may come in contact with hazardous materials.

Assessing the external damage

Take stock of the house from the outside. Look for visible, physical damage. Are there broken pilings? Cracks in the foundation? Are the walls or floors slanted? If you see obvious damage, you are going to need professional help. Have a building inspector check the premises before you go in.

Check the exterior door. If it is swollen with moisture only at the bottom, it can be forced open. If it sticks at the top, your ceiling may be ready to fall in. You can force open the door, but wait a few minutes to make sure nothing falls.

If doors are too swollen, you may have to enter through a window. Lean inside and check the ceiling before you do.

If your roof has been damaged and you're unable to cover it yourself, help may be available. Check with your local emergency management authority.

Assessing internal damage

Turn off the electricity. Structural engineer Bill Coulbourn recommends using a wooden stick to turn each circuit breaker to the off position. Unplug all appliances and lamps, remove light bulbs and then take off outlet covers for any electrical outlets that got wet.

Once you are sure the electrical system is undamaged -- preferably after a licensed electrician checks it out -- you can turn the breakers back on.

Check the ceiling for signs of sagging. If necessary, use a stick to poke a hole at the edge of the sag so that water can begin draining. Don't stand under the sag.

Remove mirrors and heavy pictures from walls; they can fall from wet surfaces.

Check furniture to make sure a chest or armoire isn't ready to topple.

Document the damage by taking pictures of each room as you inspect it. Start making a list of damages for your insurance company.

Rescue valuables first. Remove them to a dry second story, or place in plastic bags.

First, do no more harm

Before starting clean up, protect your home from further damage from wind and rain.

Open windows if weather permits. This will start the drying-out process. If windows are swollen shut, don't break the glass; remove the sash and panes with it.

Cover holes in exterior walls with tarps or plastic sheeting. Nail them down with wooden strips or secure with duct tape.

Use lumber or 4-by-4s to brace sagging ceilings or walls. If the damage is severe, you may need to call in a contractor.

Check for broken or leaking pipes. If you find them, you will need to turn off the water at the valve at the water meter.

Clean up

Do a form of triage: Decide what can be saved and what can't. If in doubt, throw it out.

Start with your refrigerator. If it was underwater, it can't be saved. Clean up specialist Chris Paul advises wrapping it shut with duct tape and removing it from the house. In Long Island refrigerators cannot be discarded with their doors intact. So once the frig is outside it, plug your nose, empty it and remove the doors.

If it wasn't under water and you think you can salvage it, take a deep breath, cover your nose and throw away everything in the refrigerator. Unplug the appliance and take out all removable parts.

If there is one, empty the defrost water disposal pan. Wash all parts thoroughly with hot water and rinse with disinfectant made from 1 teaspoon chlorine bleach to each gallon of water. With a solution of hot water and baking soda (or 1 cup vinegar or household ammonia to 1 gallon of warm water), wash the interior, including doors and gaskets. Leave the door open of the appliance to ventilate it. Do not mix ammonia and bleach as it can release poisonous gas.

Strip the house of all furnishings impacted by floodwaters. Cover salvageable items with plastic and leave outdoors to dry.

If the carpet got very wet, it has to go since carpets harbor mold. Saturated carpet is heavy, so remove in 6-foot sections, roll them up with the pad and take it to the dump or put it out with the trash.

High quality oriental or wool rugs may be able to be saved; try not to fold them and get them to a cleaner as soon as possible.

Throw away anything porous that got wet: bedding, books and papers, upholstered furniture, kitchen utensils.

Remove linens and clothing to a dry place; they may be able to be laundered and restored. Nonporous dishes can be cleaned after the water is declared safe to drink and the sewer lines are clear.

If you have mud: Shovel out as much as you can, being careful to wear protective clothing such as rubber boots and gloves. Then, if you have running water, hose down the floors, washing mud out the doors. Don't allow the water to sit on the floor for long; use a wet vac or squeegee mop to remove it promptly.

Any food, including canned food that has been touched by flood water, must be considered contaminated and discarded.

Remove limbs, debris and trash

Start the interior drying-out process. There are several ways to do this, some of which will have to wait until it's safe to turn on the electricity:

Open up closet and cabinet doors. As cabinets dry, you should be able to remove swollen drawers.

Use fans to move the air. Do not use central air-conditioning until ducts have been inspected and cleaned. If ducts run through the slab or were flooded they may contain debris and bacteria, which will just be blown into your home.

Run dehumidifiers and window air-conditioning units.

Use dessicants (materials that absorb moisture) in closets or other enclosed areas. These include chemical dehumidifying packets used to dry out boats, cat litter made of clay, or calcium chloride pellets used to melt ice in the winter. Hang the pellets in a pillow case in the closet and place a pan beneath to catch dripping water.

Start removing waterlogged surface materials. Wallboard acts like a sponge; even several inches of water can be soaked upward in what is called a wicking effect. Wallboard will have to go. Plaster survives a flood better than wallboard, but takes a very long time to dry. If plaster separates from the wall laths (studs) as it dries, it will have to be replaced. Wood swells and distorts with moisture intake, but generally regains its shape as it dries.

Even if walls and ceilings look undamaged, open them at various places to check for mold and mildew. If you see either, drywall must come out.

Remove, bag and throw away all insulation in the walls. This will have to be replaced.

Clean all nonporous surfaces with a disinfectant. Ceramic tile is nonporous, so it can be cleaned as usual, although the grout, which is porous, may require special effort. Nonporous materials such as Corian countertops or stainless steel also can be cleaned.

Vacuum floors if possible with a vacuum that has a HEPA filter. Do not use your regular vacuum unless you can cover the exhaust with a filter or direct the exhaust outside; you may simply blow bacteria around your house.

Mold removal

The rule of thumb is that anything that stays wet for 48 hours has potential mold growth. And anything porous -- Sheetrock, ceiling tiles, insulation -- will host mold. So if you had any standing water for more than two days, you should remove all porous materials.

Always wear protective clothing when dealing with mold; respirators, preferably made of neoprene, are recommended.

The Terrebonne Readiness and Assistance Commission recommends that you use the following mixture to clean all moldy surfaces to keep mold from spreading as you remove porous surfaces: In a garden pump sprayer, mix ¾-gallon bleach and ¼-gallon TSP (trisodium phosphate, a common ingredient used in pressure-washing, available in paint and hardware stores) with 1½ gallons water. Spray infested surface so that it is wet to the touch. The kill time is 10 minutes minimum. Scrub infected area if necessary. Allow drying to the touch. Repeat procedure.

Others recommend a mixture of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water, but the chlorine smell will linger. Acceptable as well are phenolic or alcohol-based germicides available at janitorial supply stores.

Remove and discard all porous materials (that is, anything that will absorb water): wallboard, ceiling tiles, insulation, carpet, etc.

Remove Sheetrock in the following manner: Make a horizontal cut parallel to the floor at least 3 feet above the level of flood water contamination; if the water was 1 foot high in the house, go up to 4 feet of Sheetrock and cut it out. If floodwaters were 4 feet or above, the entire wall needs to be removed.

Disinfect studs and other exposed structural wood with a good germicide and then seal them with a fungicidal encapsulant, such as Kilz. Be prepared to remove flooring, since most ceramic tile is installed on top of drywall or greenboard. Spaces between floors and subfloors can harbor mold and bacteria.

Allow exposed walls to dry thoroughly before starting restoration. This will take at least a week or more. Moisture meters can test for wood moisture.

While wood frame homes will survive flooding, those fully impacted by floodwaters may not be good candidates for repair. On a square-foot basis, new construction is cheaper than remodeling.

Keep it in perspective

Use the above information as a general guideline, but understand that every situation will be different. Katrina left thousands of homes under a foot or 2 of water for a couple of days, thousands of others under 7 feet of water for a couple of weeks. Every situation will require a tailored response, often with the help of professionals in structural engineering and disaster recovery.

If you're overwhelmed or don't know where to begin, seek help before taking on the task of recovery, starting with your insurance company if available. And be prepared for the extra energy that the emotional toll of cleanup will require. As many public officials have said about the larger rebuilding process, it's a marathon, not a sprint. So, too, is recovering your home.

What you'll need for cleanup

-- Camera to record everything before you touch it

-- Heavy rubber gloves (elbow length if you can find them)

-- Rubber boots

-- Neoprene respirator or surgical masks (look for them at hardware and drugstores; get the ones with rubber sealants on either side)

-- Goggles

-- First aid kit

-- Vicks Vap-o-rub (apply under your nose for smell)

-- Heavy-duty 30-gallon garbage bags and twist-ties

-- Mold remediation supplies, including 10-gallon sprayer

-- Bleach and fungicidal disinfectants

-- Rags

-- Buckets

-- Duct tape.

-- Full set of tools, including a chain saw or handsaw, shovel and something to get into house if doors and windows are swollen shut, such as an ax or crowbar.

-- Flashlights to see into dark closets

-- Wooden stick for turning things over and moving electrical wires.

-- Tarps to secure openings in windows or roofs.

-- Insect repellent and sunscreen.

-- Lots of drinking water and nonperishable food.

-- Change of clothes for immediately after your cleanup.

Advice from local experts

-- Be patient. Contractors are handling calls in the order of urgency, says Marvin Schwartz, chief executive of Jarro Building Industries, based in East Meadow. If you have a broken window, for instance, you're going to be lower on the priority list because you can tape it up and wait to have it repaired. Someone whose house has been crushed by a tree or flooded must be higher on the list, Schwartz says. The contractors may be operating on limited power just as you are -- Jarro's office phones are still out and all calls are being routed to Schwartz's cellphone, for instance.

-- When disaster strikes, so do con men. Emergency repair work you pay for now may cost a lot more in the long run if you hire someone who is unqualified, warns handyman Neal Skula of Neal Jasons Innovations in Port Jefferson. "My advice is as long as it's not life threatening, don't make hasty decisions, he says.

-- "Make sure the person is licensed, has workers' compensation and liability insurance," says Ray Accettella of Jarro Building Industries Corp of East Meadow. Electrical and plumbing work should only be done by professionals and make sure you are in shape to take on other repairs.

-- The first thing you want to do is prevent further losses, says Jay Di Mucci, vice president of Prestige Remodeling and Development of Farmingdale. "You want to preserve and protect your property," he says. If you have a leaking roof, put a tarp over it. If you have a broken pipe, shut your water down.

-- If you see shingles missing you probably have the beginning of a leak issue, but if you see exposed nails, make the call to a roofer right away, says Dean Neuman, president of Bauhaus Builders in Northport.

-- The important thing to do is get the water out fast, says Frank Colaiacomo, who owns a restoration business called Puro First of Long Island in Shirley.

"Average mold removals costs $20,000 and up," he says. After the standing water is out, tear out the walls and insulation well above the water marks. Tear out the carpets and padding. Then, run dehumidifiers to get all of the moisture out of the house, at least three days. Professional companies such as his will use moisture detectors to make sure it is completely dry. Floating wood floors need to come out, too, he says.

--Take care of water damage as soon as possible, says Rich Wiemer, pro services specialist at the Lowe's Home Improvement store in Farmingdale. If you have just a couple of inches, you could do it yourself using a shop vac. Then use fans or air movers to expedite drying. Dehumidifiers also help. "Standing water can produce mold, which can aggravate breathing and asthma issues," Wiemer says. For deeper water, call a water extraction emergency services contractor, he says.

-- Take pictures every step of the way, Di Mucci advises. If a tree fell on your property, photograph everything it came in contact with from swing set to car to house. Then, after the tree is moved, take photographs again to document the damage. You will want photos to show your insurance company.

-- Open a claim with your insurance company and then contact appropriate businesses for repair estimates, Di Mucci says.

Compiled by Stacey Altherr, Lisa Doll Bruno and Beth Whitehouse.

Two words to know

Mitigate: To "soften the blow." Hurricane mitigation applies to repair of hurricane damage and prevention of damage from future storms.

Remediate: To correct a deficiency. Mold remediation involves getting rid of it.

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