Thursday, April 11, 2019

Flooding, Part 2

We’re still experiencing flooding here, but the first surge is done. I stayed dry, my house is above the flood plain, and so far, the place where I work has been spared. We got lucky where a lot of friends and family didn’t; the rapid spring thaw, combined with above-normal snow still on the ground and a moderate rain storm, caused a flash flood event that took most people by surprise.

Unlike the “normal” floods caused by the Missouri River, this one was mainly on the tributary rivers and was made worse by the Missouri being too full. If the tributaries don’t have an outlet, they back up and seem to run backwards. This blows out levees, and since we had a lot of ice on some of the rivers, it lifted that ice and created blockages at bridges. Nebraska lost 27 bridges and one dam, and has hundreds of miles of roads that are destroyed. Iowa had several small rivers go out of their banks and flood the areas between levees, and some of that water is still standing in the fields almost a month later, because it has nowhere to go. Rivers are still running high, and we have more rain in the forecast. This is going to be a long, wet year.

This was a true “flash” flood. We had maybe two hours’ notice that the rivers were going to break free, and once they did, a couple more hours before the water came. There was no time to empty businesses, and a lot of people got out of their houses with what they could carry in one trip to the car. A local motorcycle dealer managed to get his rolling stock of 400 bikes moved to higher ground, but lost everything else in the business. The used truck (semis) dealer across the street from him wasn’t as lucky, and about 200 of his trucks were submerged. Campgrounds near the rivers were swept clean, with campers and motor-homes being washed downriver. (More on the problems with vehicles and flooding in a future article.)

People are starting to get back to their homes and beginning the process of cleaning up and carrying on. That’s what happens after a flood; people continue on with their lives as best they can. I’ve seen this after the regional floods in 1993 and 2011, and the more localized flooding in 2007. Even when a house is completely destroyed, most people will rebuild if they’re allowed to do so. After the flooding in 1993, several unincorporated areas on the Missouri River were abandoned and re-zoned to prohibit new construction, but that is rare. Humans like living near water; it is a staple of life and civilization. [There is also the consideration of whether or not they could sell the old place in order to finance a move to a new place; this frequently locks people into rebuilding whether they want to or not. ~Editor]

Cleaning up after a flood is one of the few things you can prepare for. Local communities will come together and the outpouring of supplies often overwhelms some of the collection centers, but having your own supplies means you don’t have to rely on others and it makes getting started easier and quicker. Assuming that you evacuated and have returned to find your house mostly intact, there are a few things to take care of before you can start the clearing process.

The Checklist

  • Make sure the electricity is off. Check with the power company and ensure that they have killed the feeds going into your area. Find out when they will be restoring service. Electricity and water are a bad combination, so stay safe. Do not enter a flooded house if you are not certain the power is off.
  • Check your natural gas or LP supply. Make sure the gas is off at the meter or tank before entering a building. Because of the many odors stirred up by flood water, you may not notice the odor of natural gas/Liquid Propane. LP tanks float, so even if you did own a tank before the flood, you might not have one to worry about anymore — I know where a few 700-gallon tanks are sitting in the middle of a field right now, but getting them out is going to be a challenge. LP is heavier than air and will settle into basements, while natural gas is lighter than air and will accumulate in the upper floors.
  • Check with the Water Department if you’re on the grid. Find out how long it’s going to be before they can restore service, and then how long before the water is potable. They may not have answers, so keep asking and listening for information.
  • Pay attention to the weather. It doesn’t take much additional rain to turn saturated dirt into mud.

Clearing the House
Depending on how high the water rose, you may have areas of the house that stayed dry. Leave those areas for last; start at ground level and work your way down before going up. You want to clear a path on the ground level and then get the wettest stuff out first. You may need to remove standing water, so having a way to pump it is useful.
  • Remove everything that came into contact with the flood water.
  • Clothing may be salvageable, but furniture is not. Anything with stuffing or filler is unsafe to keep. Carpet and padding also has to go; area rugs may be salvageable if you have a way to clean and dry them.
  • Discard all food that the water touched. You would not believe the variety of chemical and biological contamination present in flood water, so any container that got wet is suspect. Sealed containers can be sterilized by removing the labels (that makes meal time a mystery) and washing them in a dilute bleach solution.
  • Hard plastic, ceramic, and metal can be cleaned, so set them aside until you have a supply of clean water, soap, and bleach. Soft plastic and rubber items should be discarded. Wooden utensils go in the trash or burn pit.
  • Electronics that got wet are almost always trashed. Even my waterproof cell phone is only rated for 30 minutes underwater, so your 80” TV is toast.
  • If your interior walls got soaked, start tearing them out once you have the rooms empty. The gypsum that drywall is made of is the same chemical you’ll find in larger desiccant packs, so you’re not going to be able to dry it out. Removing the drywall allows airflow to the structure of the house and will speed up the drying. Older lathe-and-plaster walls aren’t as likely to retain moisture as drywall, but will be damaged and start to decay as they dry out so you’ll need to remove it. Wood paneling should be popped loose or removed to let air get behind it and may be reusable once cleaned and dried. Insulation may also need to be removed and replaced.
  • Windows and doors that got submerged should be removed to let the framework of the house dry out. Wet wood tends to swell, so removing the wet doors and window will remove a source of stress on the remaining structure, and improve airflow. Once they dry, windows and doors may be reusable if they haven’t warped.
Have somewhere to take all of the discarded materials. Our local landfill doubled the price of waste coming in due to the sudden influx of trucks. Don’t be that guy that just dumps stuff in a ditch somewhere! All you’re doing is shifting the mess to someone else’s yard.

If the weather cooperates and the ambient humidity drops below 50%, you can prevent mold and mildew by drying out the interior of the house as fast as possible. Biological contaminants and the various fungi known as mold are treated with the same things you work to avoid when storing food: heat, sunlight (specifically the UV part of it), and oxygen.

  • Heat may be an option if you have a safe way to generate it. A wood-burning stove would work; a forced-air furnace probably won’t, if only because they are usually in the way of the floodwaters. Raising the temperature of the air through whatever means will also help the drying process.
  • Opening or removing windows and doors will let sunlight in and keep mold from growing wherever the sunlight reaches. UV or “black” lights set up in dark rooms will slow it down, but you need to watch your exposure to high-strength UV, because it’s bad for your eyes. A little-known fact: most commercial laundries and food-production plants use UV lights to filter air, and there are some water treatment plants that use it to kill pathogens in the water.
  • Fresh air contains about 20% oxygen, so getting air moving through the house is important. Common bleach and hydrogen peroxide are sources of oxygen — that’s the source of their cleaning power. Potassium permanganate is another oxidizer that is fairly easy to find, but a bit harder to use. Be careful with all of these, as they are toxic.
  • If you have electricity, run dehumidifiers and air conditioners as much as possible to help remove moisture from the air. Use fans to circulate air into every room. This is very important in areas below ground level with limited or no natural air flow.

  • Have an electrician check your wiring and breakers. Anything that was under water for more than a few hours will likely have to be replaced. I did a lot of equipment removal after the flooding in 1993, mostly consisting of commercial electronics that were full of silt and mud. This is actually easier, since you’ll have most of the interior walls torn out already.
  • Have a licensed contractor inspect the structure of the building. I’ve seen flood water move houses off their foundations, and there may be damage that you won’t recognize.
  • There’s a good chance that the local government will check your buildings. If they find too much damage, they will deem them unsafe and may condemn them. Unsafe can be repaired, but if they condemn it, you’re in for a court battle if you want to live there.
  • If you have flood insurance, or really good home-owners insurance, contact your agent and get on the list for an adjuster to inspect the damage. Be prepared to fight their estimates; they don’t make money by paying claims. Taking pictures as you clear the house will greatly back up your side of the story if it goes to court.
Once you have everything out of the house, the drying process will take weeks or months before you can start to rebuild. I’ll cover rebuilding later, once we actually get to that point around here.

Since floods are an area disaster, building materials and replacement furniture are going to increase in price (supply and demand) and become harder to find until the supply chain catches up. The delay while you’re waiting for everything to dry should give prices time to stabilize and maybe even come back down a bit.

Floods are an act of nature that we can’t control, and preparing for them largely consists of getting out of their way. Dealing with the aftermath is something that we need to think about before it happens.

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