When the rains come in too much abundance we sometimes find ourselves watching water rise up through the floorboards. A woman told me recently that they saw the water rising outside and her husband tried to sandbag the doors and thought that would help. Instead, they were surprised that the water just came up through the floor all around them as if the walls were not even there. I told her that if the floor had not let the water through, it would have lifted like a boat and simply floated away.
Floodwaters are usually defined as water that touches the ground before it enters the house. That flooded basement where water came through the cement blocks will not be covered by homeowners insurance. You must have a separate flood insurance policy to be covered. Water that came through a hole in the roof or window that was caused by falling branches or wind generally are covered by homeowners insurance.
Apparently flood insurance is sold in at least three varieties. One that covers the house itself, one that covers only the contents (designed for renters) and one that covers the house and contents. Most mortgage companies only require the first. If you have flood insurance check to see if your furniture, carpets, clothing are covered or you may be in for a nasty surprise.
What are the problems involved?
Every home is affected differently by flooding. It depends on the type of construction and the height of the water in the house and whether it has been breached or moved by strong winds or moving water.
Breached homes (hit by floating debris or windstorm) and those pushed off of foundations have a high probability of requiring professional help or becoming not repairable.
All homes affected by flooding have one overriding problem: Water essentially ruins everything that it touches that is not waterproof. Drywall, carpets, furniture (particularly fabric covered), clothing, anything made of paper or cardboard, family documents, pressed wood such as found in inexpensive cabinets and flooring, and electronics all can be expected to be headed to the dump.
Most wiring, plumbing and some appliances survive, as does most of the framing if dried out soon and thoroughly enough. You should be aware that floodwater damaged homes can have lingering problems that may show up weeks, months, and even years later. If not properly dried out, you can have a “sick” house, one that is harboring mold, mildew and other toxins that affect those living there. Don’t take shortcuts.
Recovery Time Varies
You will notice that in areas where there is heavy flooding, some homes come back to life in a matter of weeks and others linger for a year or more and those often end up being removed entirely. If the home is salvageable, it is essential that work begin immediately and that a logical step by step process be followed. The suggestions here should help get a house recovered in the minimum time required to do it right.
Much of this article assumes the damage has been done and the waters have subsided. It is by no means all inclusive, but it is an efficient process to get your life back on track. It will take several weeks at best for even the lightest hit homes. Two months are about average for homes with water that rises above the baseboards.
Types of people affected. In my experience working on more than a dozen homes as a volunteer after hurricane Dennis in 2005, there are three categories of people affected. I’m going to address the rest of this article directly to them:
Renters. You should immediately contact your insurance company to seen if you have renter’s insurance that covers floods and then find a dry place to rent. You may also be eligible for assistance. Contact your local Red Cross, United Way, Salvation Army, or other prominent local service agency and see what is available. They should be able to direct you to a shelter until you get that dry place to rent. Some will be able to give rental assistance. Notify your church and your friends.
You should know that bedding, stuffed furniture and electronics (TV etc) that have gotten wet in floodwaters are almost never salvageable. Most lightly soiled clothing can be saved. Do not take anything wet into your new apartment. Take clothing to a commercial laundry and/or dry cleaners first. Dry the furniture you are trying to save carefully and remove all traces of mud. Put everything into storage until you find a new apartment. Consider volunteering to help your landlord or neighbors.
Landlords are those that have tenants in the house that was flooded. If you are a landlord, you should be aware that you will not get much priority in restoring your property except with paid contractors unless there are extenuating circumstances. You should first contact your insurance company and see if you are covered with flood insurance and follow their directions if you are. Let your church and your friends know. You should then contact local service providers, such as the Red Cross, for assistance with relocating your tenants but don’t expect to receive much more than referral of volunteers (who also want to help homeowners first). If you are old, infirm or disabled and this is your only source of income, then I expect volunteers to flock to help.
Homeowners are people who both own and live in the house that was flooded. Homeowners without flood insurance will have natural priority with service agencies and volunteers. If your flood insurance does not cover the contents, you may need assistance in replacing your personal property even if the insurance replaces your drywall for you. Everyone wants to get you back into your own home. You should first contact your insurance company and see if you are covered with flood insurance and to what extent (home only, home and contents) and follow their directions if you are. Let your church and friends know.
You should contact your local disaster relief agencies and service providers such as the Red Cross, United Way, Salvation Army, etc. in your area for assistance in locating volunteers to assist in recovering your house. The disaster relief agency may assist you in acquiring federal and/or state funding to help pay for some of the costs. If you do have flood insurance, then the volunteers should only be asked to help with the emergency part of the cleanup such as removal of furniture, etc. as the insurance will take care of the bulk of the work. If the contents are not covered, let the volunteer agency know and they may try to help secure donations to get you by.
As a homeowner without insurance, you will get the highest priority for assistance from volunteer agencies, depending on actual need. Some will assign case workers to work with you to help determine the need. If you have insurance, the need will naturally be less. If you are uninsured, elderly or with several children, you will go to the top of the list. If you are a retired banker, able-bodied and have good financial resources you will end up lower in the stack or left to hire your own contractor..
Damage Varies House to House.
What kind of damage can occur varies from house to house even in the same neighborhood. Some may be on concrete slabs and others sitting on cement blocks. Some may have basements and others not. Some may be further up the hill and get small amounts in the crawl space or onto the walking surface, while others may be up to the rooftops. Some may have pressed wood siding, others brick. Everything causes variations in the damage done and the cost of restoring the house.
Utilities and Government Actions
Condemned Sign Posted. You can expect your city or county code and health departments to pay a visit and may put a condemned sign and yellow tape on the door to your property. That does not mean your house has to be torn down or can’t be fixed. It means you can’t live in it until they agree it is safe to do so. You should make an appointment with them and be ready to outline your restoration process. They will usually let you go inside and begin cleanup operations.
You should be aware that there is a process whereby a house or neighborhood can be condemned and removed. It does happen when the damage is so severe that it cannot be repaired or the risk of being flooded again is too high, often after repeated floods. It is a long process and involves the government purchase of the land at fair market value.
Utilities Turned Off. You will also find that the various utilities will likely turn off the power at the pole and gas and water at the street or the meter. They may even remove the gas or electric meter. This is for your safety. You won’t need them to begin cleaning the place up. If you have equipment you need to use (a commercial dehumidifier, for example) you can ask for an inspection of your wiring and they may restore it.
Otherwise you can ask your utility for a “construction” or “temporary” meter and they will put one in your front yard that you can use to run power equipment. Interior wiring, including light switches and outlets are not usually harmed by flooding waters. This is because the circuit breakers often save them (and you). Your local inspectors will look at them before they let you restore poser.
The Recovery Process
Concrete Slab Construction Houses built on concrete slabs usually fare the best in the long run. However they may also have the deepest water in their homes. The furnaces and ductwork are usually above the floor and are more easily cleaned or replaced and since there is no crawl space, the flooring will not likely be damaged other than carpet and loose tiles or any wood flooring on the slab.
Crawl Space and Basement Construction: Houses built with craw spaces have a whole range of additional troubles. Standing floodwater in the crawlspace or basement will quickly cook up a brew of mold and mildew that will take a commercial service to kill it, if it can be done at all. You need to work fast to avoid serious problems.
Often the furnace is under the house or at least the ductwork and usually both will be full of water even if the water did not reach the walking surface. In addition, the sub floor (layer under your exposed floor) is often pressed-wood that has aged and will soak up water and begin to rapidly deteriorate. It is a difficult and dangerous environment to work in and it should be professionally dried out before entering.
This list includes everything down to cabinet removal and sometimes power restoration, but it is critical to do it quickly. A lot of this is do-it-yourself level work but get all the help you can get It will take 4 to 10 people to just clean out the house. 20 would be a blessing and can be done in a few hours.
Everyone should be equipped with gloves, mask, long sleeves, long pants and shoes with non slip soles and cover the entire foot. There should be hand sanitizer available and lots of paper towels. This can be a dangerous job from the standpoint that there may be hidden broken glass, exposed nails as the drywall is removed, and critters looking for refuge as well as toxins already brewing.
Explain safety rules and the process. Start the day by outlining the safety considerations, then explain the process so that overzealous helpers do not get carried away and get ahead of the curve. Ripping off the drywall before you take off the door and window trim and the switch covers can add to the expense of recovery. Piling things in front of the doors or walkways and interior traffic patterns will just slow things down for everyone. Request that any nails in boards be bent over and turned down when thrown on the pile. Boards to be saved that have nails sticking out should be placed separately out of all walk patterns, preferably standing in a garage corner or tucked against an exterior wall.
The following instructions include all types of construction. The object is to get everything wet out of the house ASAP. This includes furniture, interior doors, carpets, baseboards and drywall to the extent it got wet. Be aware that you may have problems not considered here. Open all the windows and doors when you have workers on the site. Keep the windows partially open until the house is dry.
Get the furniture and other belongings out of the house, or at least off the floor that was flooded. Tag salvageable items and/or stand at the door to direct those things you want to try to save to a separate area well out-of-the-way, preferably dry like a carport. You will want to put anything salvageable into dry storage, but clean and dry them first. If the water made the carpet wet or if you can detect a moldy smell, it is not likely to be salvageable. If there is the least doubt, you should get a professional cleaner to look at them first
Wet carpets from floodwater have tiny microbes and spores galore that will fester over time and promote sickness later, even when well dried. Wet carpet will slow down your progress by a week or more if you keep it in the house. Pull it up as soon as possible and also remove the padding and take it all out to the curb. Most communities will do free pickup of flood damaged debris.
In almost all cases the baseboard and wet drywall will need to be removed to prevent mold from growing inside the wall..
Remove the baseboards first. If done carefully, some baseboards can be saved in a dry place. However, old wet wood will often split. Removal should be done with a flat iron pry bar, not a hammer. Sometimes you can punch a hole in the drywall and simply pry the baseboard off with the pry bar. Number the baseboards if you plan to try to save them so that you can put them back in the same place
Remove the electrical trim plates. Put them away in your car or a drawer somewhere with the screws or plan to buy new ones. They have to be removed to replace the drywall later, so put them away now.
Remove the interior trim on all doors and windows – number and save the trim. Removing the trim will aid in removing the drywall and will also open up spaces for captured moisture in the hidden spaces in the casing to escape. You may get the wet drywall out easily with the trim still on, but you won’t be able to get the new drywall in with the trim still in place, so remove it now..
Remove the interior doors and casings. Number them and remove to a dry place (garage or corner of a carport, for example) to aid in drying them out and to protect them. Use a saws-all to cut the nails through the casing shims if you have power, else pry carefully in stages all around using the flat iron. Doors with laminated wood facing (Luan) should be thrown out as they will just come apart later. Hollow core panel doors will sometimes separate but sometimes can be glued back after they are thoroughly dry.
Remove the wet drywall. Find the highest wet drywall level and go at least 4 inches above that. Try to select a point 1, 2, or 4 feet from the floor to make your new drywall go further. draw a chalk line at that level, cut and remove the drywall from there down. This is best done with a drywall hand saw. Make the cuts at a shallow angle as there may be wires or even pipes or air conditioner lines in the wall. I don’t recommend a ”saws-all” except in the hands of someone very capable and careful. I’ve seen a lot of cut wiring and pipes that greatly increase the cost of repairs. It is an easy job with a good drywall hand saw. If the cut does not follow the line carefully, it will slow up replacement later.
If the water level was above 4 feet, remove all the drywall. If the level is below 18 inches, take out the bottom 2 feet. If below 8 inches take out the bottom foot. Go higher if the drywall feels damp less than 4 inches from the lines mentioned here. Doing this in 1, 2 or 4 foot increments will reduce the amount of drywall you have to buy and reinstall because the sheets are easily cut to narrower widths and will go further. Take out all the drywall in a line all around the house. Don’t forget the closets as they will be the worst to mildew.
Punch a hole in one of the wall cavities with a hammer or prybar below your cut line. Grab the sheetrock with your hand and pull it off and have it carried outside onto a portion of the driveway. Often sheetrock will come off in large sheets.
Remove the nails. Have someone come behind as each wall is cleared and pull the drywall nails and remove any screws. Put them into a bag or can for disposal later. Nails that break off can often just be driven in flat. Have someone check the studs by running the edge of their hammer up and down them and along the bottom plate to detect any missed ones. Nails left on the wall will be snags for anyone working close by and will cause damage to new sheetrock if not noticed in time. May as well be systematic and find them all now.
Remove all bottom cabinets. Remove the bottom cabinets in the kitchen and bath, but start with the counter tops. Counter tops will usually have screws underneath that you can find (use a flashlight) from the open areas underneath, often in corners and near the middle. These hold the top to the cabinet. Sometimes there is also putty. Remove these screws, cut along the caulk along the back edges of the splash board.
Verify that the water is turned off at the meter, disconnect the faucet lines and, if necessary, remove the cutoff valves under the sink. Take out the trap and tape a plastic bag over the drain line. Remove the countertop by using a 3-in-one tool or flat iron prybar to lift the front and pull it away from the wall. Decide if you want it saved or not.
Remove the bottom cabinets. If you desire to salvage them, look behind the drawers and inside the back and remove any screws you can find that are holding them to the wall. Usually there will also be screws hidden behind the door edges in the front frame that hold the cabinets to each other unless they are built as one unit.
Remove all the screws and then use a sharp drywall knife to cut through any caulk between the cabinet and the wall. Slowly pry the back of the cabinet from the wall with a flat iron all around in stages so as to detect any missed screws. Older cabinets are often below the floor level as new layers of vinyl have been added over the years. They are seldom nailed to the floors, Tilt them forward and lift them up with a prybar.
Usually you will end up finding that the cabinets cannot be saved, but it is worth a try. Be aware that most modern cabinets have significant amounts of pressed wood and will harbor mold even if they don’t deteriorate during the flood. The cabinets must be removed to get to the drywall behind them and to the open spaces below them anyway. If the cabinets look good and the pressed wood has not deteriorated, Kiltz the back and bottoms of the cabinets (inside too if possible) to reduce the chance of mold and mildew later.
In my experience any cabinet that is no longer sold as a “standard” cabinet will also require you to remove and replace the top cabinets as well. Might as well do it, although I’ve managed to save two sets of top cabinets out of maybe 10 or 12 houses I’ve worked on.
Inspect the sub floor from the basement or crawlspace if you can get in there. At least look at the area over the crawl space door. If the sub floor is coming apart you will have to remove all of your flooring to get to it, remove and replace it all. I was in one house as we were removing carpet and someone broke through the floor. No injuries but the floor under the carpet was simply pressed wood (OSB) and was falling apart (it had termite damage too).
Houses with crawl spaces will usually require professional help. At the least, any trapped water needs to be drained from under there. This can be done by carrying in dry dirt to fill pockets of standing water, and by using sump pumps for sunken areas of the crawl space and basements.
Often the fuse panels and laundry are in basement areas. Furnaces are often in basements and many times in crawl spaces. Duct work can still be filled with toxic water and must be cleaned or removed. If it is flexible duct work, punch holes in the bottom of low spots, let the water drain, then remove them and replace with new duct work after the house has been dried out. A commercial dehumidifier and/or large blowers will be required to dry the basement or craw spaces completely. Any moisture remaining will just promote mold and fungi growth.
Mold and mildew will begin to grow on wet wood in the crawl spaces very quickly! You will see white spots and some with “hairs”. Black mold is the most dangerous and should be avoided completely. It will take commercial products made for the purpose to kill them. A thinned bleach spray will also work, but the danger to non-professionals doing this job is very high and loss of vision, lung and skin problems can be very serious. Vapors from cleansers will seep into the living areas and can be dangerous to anyone working above. Let everything dry and air out completely after using them. Professionals have the tools and the safety clothing and hoods to do this with no danger.
Get power restored. With any luck you can do that while you are still doing demolition if an electrician and the inspector agree. If not, there will be a point where you have finished the demolition where you can have an electrician and/or government inspector verify the safety of your house for electrical purposes.
That inspection may allow you to restore power. If the power system of your house is heavily damaged, consider asking the power company to install a temporary meter and pole in your yard. The point is that you need power to run fans and dehumidifiers to aid in the drying out process.
Drying it out. (1 to 3 weeks) Many governments require you to be inspected to verify that the house is dry enough to begin reconstruction. This means you can’t begin installing the new drywall until they say you can. If you get ahead of your inspection curve, you may be required to remove the drywall, inspect and replace it again. Work with your inspectors. They are your friends looking out for your safety.
Be aware that some cities and counties require the drying out process to be at least two weeks before they will inspect it. Ask them. If the wood is obviously dry you may get them to make an exception based on hardship. For your own good, it must be completely dry. Be nice to them at all times, very, very nice. particularly if you need some sort of exception, because they can make it easy or hard. They are nice people anyway, just doing their jobs but they don’t have time to argue with you. I am not and never have been an inspector if you are wondering. I’m just going from experience. Ask them what they expect you to do. It is ok to negotiate some and tell them why it is important to you , but don’t argue. Kiss of death. Besides there are good reasons for allowing wood to dry for a minimum amount of time.
Keep the screened windows open during dry weather and open the doors as much as you can. I’m not recommending that the doors be left open when no one is there. Close the windows partway up and lock them into place with a nail if necessary. Move the equipment around until the wood is obviously very dry, not “kinda” or almost dry.
Rebuilding – Get an inspection. Your inspector will want to check the dryness of your home, and will also want to look at the wiring and pipes that will be hidden later. If you had to have your flooring removed, then you will need them to look at the framing there too. Install the flooring if necessary and have it inspected. These inspections are for your own good. Always insist a contractor get a permit. While your inspector is there, ask him or her if they want to see the drywall nail pattern before you paint. Some do.
Drywall first. Once your inspectors give the ok, start putting up the drywall. Recheck the studs and bottom plates for overlooked nails first. Lay it sideways and make sure the thickness is the same. We had one house with a mixture of ½ inch and 5/8 inch drywall and some volunteers put in all ½ inch. I had to come behind them and replace a lot of it. 5/8 is typically used as firewall material, sometimes found in and outside furnace closets and walls that divide two apartments. and in flue chases.
Be aware that you can now buy “paperless” drywall. This is moisture resistant and does not provide anything for mold to grow on. It uses a fiberglass backing instead of paper. It costs more but if you have a damp basement that you choose to not waterproof, then use the paperless drywall material. Use “green rock” water resistant drywall in bathrooms.
Lift the drywall off the floor by the thickness of a scrap piece of drywall so the bottom never touches the floor. This reduces the chance that mopping or minor leaks or knocked over mop buckets will damage your new drywall later. The gap will be covered by the baseboard. Try to fit the drywall close to your cut line. Use a sharp edge or sanding block/rasp to remove rough edges and humps to get a tight fit.
Tape, mud and sand your joints. It usually takes 3 coats done over 3 days. A good drywall man can do this at little cost and you will never see the joint. Be aware that most off-the- street “expert drywall installers” may never have worked on drywall before, they just need a job or saw it being done somewhere. They will not do the job you need. Almost anyone can paint, but drywall mudding requires some experience. Get references and only use someone who does it for a living, a professional. A poorly done job will haunt you forever. Every line will show.
When the drywall is finished – all 3 coats and sanding – run your hands over all the joints. If you can feel the joint, it will show when painted. Fix it.
Prepare the door casings for reinstallation. I don’t recommend knocking the nails back through the wood. Use vice-grips to pull them out the other side (the side that never shows) or use a metal-cutting blade to cut them off flush with the wood (easiest). Pull any that have heads showing on the edge of a board where the trim was peeled off, or drive them in flush. Throw away the old nails and use new ones. Knocking them back out always damages the wood. The heads are embedded and split out ugly chunks of wood.
Install the doors. Then begin reinstalling the door casing and window and exterior door trim. Make use of the numbers you put on them when they were removed. Most will fit back easily where they came from. How the door closes and whether or not they stand still when opened is dependent on the door and its casings all being perfectly vertical. Make absolutely certain that the door casings are vertical. Use shims to get both sides vertical and spaced so that there is about 1/8 inch gap on each edge of the door, sides and top. Do the base boards last or you will have trouble installing the door trim.
Install the kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Do not install the baseboards on cabinet walls until you have the cabinets installed exactly as you want them. Put the tops on last. Make certain that plumbing hasn’t been damaged or clogged with debris before hooking the faucets and drains up. You may want to replace the valves under the sinks with new ones.
Caulkaround all the new trim and new cabinets next to the drywall. Use paintable caulk for everything. Some caulk just will not take paint and will look bad when you are done. Read the labels to be certain it is paintable. Latex is good. Sometimes large boxes of donated caulk show up. Be aware it sometimes is donated because it has started to harden or is a non paintable stock that is moving slow. They are a write-off for the company but not useful to you. Don’t use it if it is hardening or wrong type.
Inspection? Some inspectors want to look at the nail pattern in your drywall before you paint. This applies mostly to new houses but you should check with them first.
Sand, fill nail holes, and Paint everything, Painting is to beautify and protect your work. Too often the paint is slapped on walls and wood work that are not ready and the beauty part is lost. Visually inspect every piece of wood for nail pops and sink the heads with a nail punch. Fill the heads with wood putty. Sand any areas that have paint chips and thin coat (even drywall mud will work) anything you can feel is rough with your bare hands, let dry and then sand again. Prime the filled areas and all new drywall.
Install carpets. Let your carpet supplier do this for you. Most people do not have the skills required. After all this work, why have carpet with twisted with obvious wrinkles and loose areas showing? People will think you just reused your old carpet. Get it done right.
Get a final inspection and move back in.
Whew! Get that flood insurance now!
It will cost you only a few hundred bucks a year. Our area has had two 100 (plus) year floods in 4 years. Three in 45 years. It will happen again.
Note: there are at least 3 types of flood insurance. One for the house, a rider or separate insurance for the contents, and one for contents only. Most mortgage companies and any federally assisted mortgage requires flood insurance on the house (only) if if it is in the FEMA designated 100 year flood zone. This insurance can be purchased by anyone outside the flood zone, usually at a greatly reduced price. Be aware that it does not protect the contents unless you purchase that additional flood insurance.
It is my understanding that there is a 30 day waiting period for flood insurance to go into effect. You can’t hear a hurricane is coming and then decide to get flood insurance protection at the last minute.
Your homeowner’s policy does not cover flood damage to your home or its contents. You may see words that seem to cover it, but those apply to water coming through the roof or from broken pipes inside the house, not anything that comes through a patio door, seeps under a wall or pours out of a crack in a wall from the outside because by definition, those waters touched the ground first and thus are flood waters not covered.
You may live high up on a hillside with one side of your finished basement or downstairs area embedded against fill dirt. The nearest flood zone maybe 400 feet below you. However, if you develop a leak in your block wall and your carpet and drywall, clothing, furniture, electronics, etc. get wet, your homeowner’s policy will not cover it. Water that touches the ground first is considered flood waters even if it was not an overflow from a stream. So get flood insurance for at least the contents of your home. If your downstairs area has drywall, consider getting flood insurance for your home as well. It is cheaper if you are not in a designated flood zone.
If you own and live in a flood zone or rent to someone and furnish the carpet, etc, get flood insurance for both the house and contents in addition to homeowner’s insurance.
Renters can get flood insurance on their personal property. If you rent and your apartment gets flooded, you need to have that flood insurance on your property. The landlord is not liable in almost all cases.
I hope you were reading this just-in-case. If you are affected by a flooded house, my prayers go with you. Take care. Remember things are different case by case. I do hope that this helped you in some small way.