Long after a hurricane passes, its aftermath re-mains. Downed power lines, fallen trees, and flooding create special problems that may be felt over hundreds of miles where the storm passed.
Wait for the all-clear
The first thing to know is that the storm may not be over when you think it is. Because the eye of the storm is calm and can span dozens of miles, a break in the wind and rain may just mean that the second act is coming. If you’re waiting out the storm in an interior room (you want to stay far away from exterior doors or windows), keep a radio with you so that you know when it’s safe to come out. And never “test” the outside before you get official word that the storm has passed. Winds may strike in an instant.
Avoid buildings that you don’t know are safe
Use extreme caution be-fore even entering a building after a hurricane. Hazards, seen and unseen, are legion — dangers like compromised electrical wiring, carbon monoxide poisoning from generators, and of course structural issues from wind and water. Address these specific concerns by:
Turning off the electricity at the main breaker (only if you can do so without being in standing water)
Making sure any running generators are not only out of the building but away from an open window or door
Staying away from a building with clear structural damage or one that’s making unusual noises that may indicate that walls or floors are weakened and caving
Better yet, wait to enter until a building has been inspected and declared safe. You can start this process by contacting FEMA.
Be wary of hazardous chemicals
If hazardous chemicals are an issue — compromised weed killer containers, batteries, or propane tanks, for instance — contact the fire department to remove them. If you accidentally come into contact with any such materials, wash the affected area as soon as you can. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides detailed information on poisons and common household chemicals.
Don’t count on electricity
Not only is electric power commonly snuffed out by storms, but where it is flowing freely it may also present grave danger. Downed power lines are a premier concern after a storm, when not only is the broken line a deadly threat but the standing water also multiplies its effect by carrying electricity to places you wouldn’t expect it. You don’t have to directly contact a power line to be hurt by it if there’s water between you and it.
Be careful within your home as well. Remember to make your first visit after an evacuation during daylight hours so that you’re sure to have light. And if you do find your electricity is on, be extremely vigilant about how you use it. It’s all too easy to forget about standing water and power up an appliance, to bad result.
Watch out for contaminated water
Whenever flooding occurs, contaminants get swept up into the water, which means, first and foremost, that you need to keep that water outside your body. Drink only bottled water, and immediately clean any cuts or other open sores that come into contact with floodwaters. Follow up with an antibiotic cream. If you’re unsure whether you cleaned a cut in time or notice it becoming irritated, have a doctor take a look at it.
You want to keep kids and pets away from floodwaters at all times, but make sure also that you thoroughly clean any toys that may have gotten wet. (Toss the ones that can’t be cleaned, like stuffed animals or other absorbent items.)
To clean toys, dissolve one cup of bleach into five gallons of bottled water. Scrub down the toys, and then let them air dry.
Safely clean up mold
With water comes mold, and the challenge of killing it off. If your home was flooded, mold can become a problem within the first day, bringing health problems from skin irritations to asthma attacks and infections. If you have asthma or a weakened immune system, don’t even attempt to fight mold. Hire a professional or enlist a generous friend. Otherwise, follow these tips — but only after you’ve taken lots of pictures for the insurance company:
- Protect your respiratory system. Wear an N-95 or P-100 respirator when working with mold, and use a full-face model if you’re going to be ripping out drywall or otherwise tackling substantial mold.
- Cover up and wear protective gloves. Cover your eyes as well with goggles that keep out tiny particles from all angles.
- Don’t transport the mold. When you leave the site after cleanup work, leave all your protective gear behind so that you aren’t carrying mold wherever you go.
- Remove all the water you can. A wet/dry vac is essential for pulling the last of it from floors and furniture.
- Get air flowing through the house. Open doors and windows, closets, cupboards, and drawers.
- Toss what can’t be cleaned. Throw out whatever can’t be scrubbed and dried completely. Your carpet and padding, for instance.
- Clean with bleach. Scrub moldy surfaces with a mixture of 1/2 cup bleach to 1 quart water. Do not rinse but let them air dry.
- Dry thoroughly. After you’ve cleaned up mold, place dehumidifiers and fans throughout the house to dry out all your scrubbed areas. Don’t place fans before you’ve cleaned, as that may blow mold spores around further.
- Paint only after all mold is gone. Painting over mold doesn’t kill it, so make sure you’ve addressed any moldy areas before you repaint. Start with an oil-based primer.
The ins and outs of insurance — particularly in storm-prone areas — require careful scrutiny and vary according to innumerable factors, like whether you have wind or water damage. If you haven’t already, look closely at your insurance policies so that you know what’s covered and whom to contact. Make sure that you call your insurance provider immediately so that you can get specific instructions for filing a claim and documenting damage.
In general, the following are good rules of thumb:
Document, document, document. Take pictures of everything affected by the storm, from your knocked-over mailbox to the waterlogged quilt your great-grandmother sewed for you. You can’t overdocument damage and losses.
Save receipts. You may be eligible for reimbursement for the living expenses you incur while your home is being cleaned up and repaired.
Wait for an insurance inspection. Wait to start any major repairs until an insurance inspector has been to your home and evaluated the damage.
Follow general safety guidelines
After the storm has passed, you have an awful lot to think about. Here’s a summary of the safety guidelines you are most likely to need:
Rely on local authorities. You need to know about all kinds of safety issues, from flooded roads to power issues and whether it’s safe to return after an evacuation.
Beware downed power lines. Water and downed power lines are a deadly combination. Be extremely careful if you see or suspect a downed line, and contact your utility provider. Electrical equipment within your home may also be a danger.
Reduce electrical risk from standing water. Turn off the power in your home if you’re dealing with standing water, but only if you can do so without being in the standing water. Have an electrician inspect your home before you turn the electricity back on.
Tackle whatever emergency repairs you can. Cover broken windows or tarp your roof. Permanent repairs need to wait until you’ve had an insurance inspector review your damage.
Don’t wait to file a claim. You want to be as close as you can to the top of your insurance carrier’s to-do list. Claims are handled in order, and a hurricane certainly increases the workload.
Wait for the all-clear to drink tap water. Assume that water is not safe to drink until you receive official word that it is. Drink only bottled water in the meantime.
Note that with water come pests. You may find mice, insects, and snakes in your home post-storm.
Avoid using matches. Because gas lines may have been damaged by the high winds, using matches after a hurricane is especially dangerous. If you smell gas, get away from the building and alert the gas company immediately.
Keep track of expenses. As you address cleanup and repairs, keep careful records for when you file an insurance claim, including photographs of the damage. Inventory damaged property, including as much detail as you can — manufacturer, date of purchase, and so on.
Minimize risk from contaminated water. Standing water may be contaminated by sewage and bacteria or otherwise dangerous because of debris swept up in the storm. If you’re dealing with flooding, make sure that you wear protective clothing, like waterproof boots, rubber gloves, and goggles. If you cut yourself or otherwise have raw skin that bacteria may easily enter, make sure that you clean the area thoroughly after any contact with floodwaters. Use an antibiotic ointment as well.
Exercise caution when moving heavy objects. Make sure you wait to enlist help for anything that weighs more than 50 pounds, and rest when you need to.
Get support. You don’t just need friends and family to help you literally pick up the pieces; you probably also need emotional support as you pick through the damage, cope with losses, and work toward rebuilding your life.
Investigate temporary housing. If your home is uninhabitable after a hurricane, your insurance company may cover temporary housing. Call your agent before you make arrangements.
For official communications related to hurricanes, please visit the websites of FEMA, Department of Homeland Security, and the National Hurricane Center for the latest information. Please note that this is general preparedness information, not specific to a particular storm.