Damage from hurricane
(Photo credit: U.S. Air Force / by Tech. Sgt. Liliana Moreno)

The 2020 hurricane season has begun, and it could be a doozy. Researchers from universities, private groups, and government agencies have predicted an above-average hurricane season in 2020.

If you must clean up in the wake of a storm this year, it is essential to follow best practices to protect your safety. Here are some tips and resources to consult when picking up the pieces after a hurricane.

Assess the damage and gear up

Before reentering your home, you must make sure that it is safe to approach. Resist the impulse to rush in and grab your belongings. First, check for loose power lines around the home and look for signs of structural damage.

If you notice an unusual smell in or around your home and suspect it’s gas – which often smells like rotten eggs – turn off the central gas valve and leave the building immediately. Call the gas company or first responders from a safe distance.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that if there is standing water in your home and you can turn off the electricity without standing in water, then turn it off. Do not stand in water to turn off the electricity. Instead, leave the house and contact an electrician. He or she will likely be able to shut off your electricity at the utility’s meter.

When reentering a structure after a hurricane has passed, wait for daylight so that more of the objects inside will be visible. Before getting to work, take pictures of the interior and exterior of the house as you found it. Take close-up and zoomed-out pictures. All will be important when filing insurance claims.

Drying out and dealing with mold

As recommended by the CDC, you will need a hard hat, goggles, waterproof boots, gloves, and a mask to begin cleaning. If you are cleaning up mold, you may need an N95 mask, half respirator mask, or full face respirator. To determine which mask to use, check out this link from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. These masks may be in short supply because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so if you don’t have the proper equipment you should consult with a professional to determine whether you can safely remove the mold with your supplies.

If there has been standing water in your home for 24 hours or more, assume mold is growing. If you feel safe enough and have the skills, your goal is to completely dry everything in your home and remove all mold. To remove standing water, you can use a wet/dry vacuum – but be sure not to use one in more than half an inch of water.

If you don’t have electricity, then you may be able to use a portable generator to power a wet/dry vacuum. But be careful to operate the generator at least 20 feet away from the house. Carbon monoxide may build up and endanger your health or even kill you if a gasoline-powered engine is used indoors. Also, make sure you have a proper transfer switch or interlock device to safely power your appliances and devices.

To scrub mold from a hard surface, use a cleaning solution of one cup of bleach for every gallon of water. While cleaning with bleach, keep your windows open. If you have access to electricity, use a fan that blows away from your home to help the air flow. For more tips, consult the CDC’s recommendations.

If you still smell mold, you may have mold growing underneath carpets or within the walls. You may need to consult a mold remediation professional to determine if all mold has been removed.

Using chainsaws

If you must use a chainsaw to remove fallen tree limbs, follow safety precautions. Wear a hard hat, safety goggles, hearing protection, work gloves, boots, and cut-resistant work pants. Consult the manufacturer’s manual for instructions. Make sure that you are using the appropriately sized saw and that it has been properly sharpened and lubricated. When using a chainsaw, always cut at waist height or below. After cutting a limb, remove it from your work area to ensure that you have a clear path to quickly move away in case a limb unexpectedly drops. According to the CDC, about 36,000 people are treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries related to chainsaws every year.

Restarting your HVAC and electrical systems

Before restarting your HVAC or electrical system, consult with professionals to make sure there isn’t any mold growing in the HVAC system and there aren’t any damaged wires.

Even if there wasn’t any standing water, the motors in some of your appliances, such as refrigerators or washing machines, may have been damaged. Consult with a specialist before turning them back on.

The process of cleaning up from a flood will likely be an emotional one. Take breaks as needed and be willing to ask for help. For more information about cleaning up after a disaster, check out this resource from North Carolina State University that covers emotional difficulties, food safety, basic home cleanup, cleaning products, and pest problems.

Brooke Bauman is a student at UNC-Chapel Hill studying environmental science, geography, and journalism.