Disaster Contents Cleanup

Quick Summary

Contents cleanup after a disaster is never easy, but there are resources to help ease the burden. A straightforward post-disaster cleanup process, restoration services and recovery workers can help you and your family navigate this difficult time.

Contents Cleanup After a Disaster

Natural disasters can create a significant amount of damage. Hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires are all known for their destructive nature, but thunderstorms, flooding and earthquakes can also cause catastrophic damage.

Contents cleanup is frequently required after a disaster, as homeowners sort through their personal property and belongings. However, this task can make a challenging situation even worse if someone accidentally gets hurt. Hazards are common after a disaster and must stay top of mind throughout the cleanup.

Whether you decide to clean up your home alone or hire a professional team to assist with the task, all contents cleanup must be done safely. Take precautions to prevent injuries, properly address any hazards and stay in communication with family members during contents cleanup.

Post-Disaster Cleanup Process

After disaster strikes, storm and flood cleanup can feel stressful and overwhelming. Many people grieve throughout the process and find it difficult to put their homes back together. Fortunately, concrete steps can help your family stay safe and overcome this immense challenge.

The post-disaster cleanup process is a clear set of steps that help people focus on the next necessary task. Many of these tasks can be done with restoration services and recovery workers, so you don’t have to take them on alone.

1. Assess Potential Hazards

Before any cleanup begins, you need to assess potential hazards. This task is the most dangerous step in the recovery process and should never be performed alone. Always bring another adult, such as a spouse or neighbor, with you to complete the assessment.

If you can’t find help nearby, wait for emergency services or a disaster recovery aid worker.

Staying safe and addressing injuries are always the top priorities during hazard assessments. Find your first aid kit and communicate with your neighbors, if possible, to take inventory of the first aid supplies that are readily available.

There are many potential hazards after a natural disaster, including:

  • Electrocution from fallen power lines
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Pathogen contamination
  • Falling trees and debris
  • Unstable structures
  • Blocked roadways and emergency response routes
  • Property wear and tear

As you assess your property for damage, remember to record your findings for insurance purposes. Take photos on your phone or with a camera and write down notes on everything you discover.

If a structure is unstable or an area is otherwise unsafe, leave immediately and get professional assistance. Cleanup is not the first concern when personal safety is at risk.

2. Retrieve Safety Gear and Supplies

After identifying any potential hazards in and around your property, you can prepare for the cleanup process. Retrieve the safety gear and supplies you will need to perform the contents cleanup.

This step is also the time to retrieve your family’s emergency kit if you have one. Supplies such as flashlights, water and food reserves and prescription medications are essential to have nearby, so they are available when needed.

You should also gather safety gear for disaster cleanup:

  • Hard hat
  • Eye protection
  • Hearing protection
  • N-95 respirator
  • Heavy-duty work gloves
  • Long-sleeved shirt
  • Full pants
  • Steel toe work boots

Personal protective equipment (PPE) like hard hats, eye protection and steel toe boots can protect you from debris and unexpected physical threats. Meanwhile, N-95 respirators help protect your lungs and internal organs from dangerous contaminants and pathogens. Hearing protection helps prevent irreversible hearing damage.

If you are cleaning up water or sewage, you should also have:

  • Rubber gloves
  • Rubber boots
  • Goggles

These additional items help protect from contaminants, such as E. coli and other infectious bacteria and parasites commonly found in the water after storms and floods. If potentially contaminated water comes into contact with your skin, immediately wash your skin with soap and water or hand sanitizer containing a minimum of 60% alcohol content.

3. Remove Standing Water

Water is incredibly damaging, and water damage gets progressively worse. Removing standing water from your property as soon as possible is important to prevent severe flood damage.

Here are some water extraction tips to follow after a flood disaster:

  • Prevent electrocution: Before attempting to remove standing water, determine whether any active electrical cords are submerged. If cords are submerged, or you can’t tell for sure, contact your local utility company.
  • Use buckets to scoop water: Buckets, pumps and shop vacuums can all be used to remove standing water from your home. Dispose of water outdoors, into the ground.
  • Dry out the area: Once the standing water is removed, increase airflow through your home to speed up drying. You can use humidifiers, air movers and fans, and open windows and doors if the weather has cleared.
  • Pump out basements gradually: While most rooms can be cleared of water quickly, the basement is one exception. Flooded basements need to be pumped out slowly to prevent buckling if the ground surrounding the basement is waterlogged.

As a general rule of thumb, you can remove approximately one-third of the water from a basement each day over three days.

4. Check Appliances, Water Heater and HVAC System

Next, you can check on your appliances, water heater and HVAC system, if they are dry. Ensure your appliances are thoroughly dry before attempting to turn them on.

Do not touch or turn on appliances that are still wet or standing in water. 

When you’re ready to turn on your dry appliances, turn them on one at a time to avoid overloading your power system. Be sure to inspect your furnace, water heater and HVAC system for signs of damage.

5. Remove Debris and Damaged Items

The next step is to remove debris and damaged items from your home. Depending on the extent of the damage, this process can take days or even weeks.

Sort your items into salvageable and unsalvageable piles, and move anything that can’t be saved outdoors.

Unsalvageable belongings may include: 

As you come across broken glass or other sharp, dangerous debris, immediately clean it up and dispose of it. If you can’t clean it up immediately, find a way to make its presence obvious and let other people in the area know about the potential hazard.

If a wall or ceiling has collapsed or if there is structural damage in any part of the home, avoid the area until help arrives. Disaster recovery workers or property restoration contractors can help you determine whether the room is still safe.

6. Clean and Sanitize

The final step in the contents cleanup process is cleaning and disinfecting the home. In addition to your PPE, gloves, and N-95 masks, you will need several cleaning supplies in preparation for this step.

Essential cleaning supplies include:

  • Bleach
  • Bucket
  • Disinfecting dish soap
  • Garbage bags
  • Laundry detergent
  • Household cleaner
  • Scouring pads
  • Scrub brushes
  • Sponges
  • Towels
  • Clean water

Any surface that comes into contact with flood water must be thoroughly cleaned to prevent mold damage and contamination. These surfaces include carpets and floors, walls, furniture, appliances, clothing and toys. If you don’t want to clean something, throw it out.

Most items in your home can be cleaned in a chlorinated lime and water solution or a bleach and water solution. Clothing and cloth items can be washed in a washing machine using hot water. Some lightly contaminated items can be left out in the sun, as direct sunlight is a powerful disinfectant. Carpet cleaning services may be able to salvage the damaged carpet.

Remember to stay safe when using chemicals in the cleaning process. Do not mix cleaning agents, always ensure proper ventilation and keep children and pets away from the area.

Getting Help With Disaster Contents Cleanup

Storm damage can be overwhelming. Fortunately, disaster cleanup services are available to help ease the burden of cleaning up your home. Disaster cleanup teams, professional cleaning services, fire damage restoration and mold remediation companies are all available to help homeowners return their homes to a safe, liveable condition.

Insurance companies often cover some or all of the instances associated with contents cleanup. Be sure to contact your insurance company to confirm how much help is available to you.

While some cleanup efforts can be completed in just a few days, most storm cleanup requires weeks or months from start to finish. Contact disaster cleanup experts in your area immediately after a storm.

Water Damage Advisor

The Water Damage Advisor content team is made up of multiple contributors, writers, and editors. We are your resource hub for anything related to water damage, mold and restoration needs that you may be challenged with facing.

7 References
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Fact Sheet: Clean Up after A Disaster. https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/cleanup/facts.html
  2. Texas Department of Insurance. Hurricane, Flood, and Tornado Recovery and Cleanup Safety. https://www.tdi.texas.gov/pubs/videoresource/fshurricaneclea.pdf
  3. Caution.com. Tornado. http://www.caution.com/tornado/recovering_from_tornado.html
  4. Earthquake Country Alliance. Step 7: Reconnect and Restore. https://www.earthquakecountry.org/step7/ 
  5. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Water Damage Restoration & Clean Up Checklist. https://agrilifeextension.tamu.edu/solutions/water-damage-restoration-clean-up-checklist/
  6. B.C. Ministry of Public Safety. (2007). One Step At A Time: A Guide To Disaster Recovery. https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/public-safety-and-emergency-services/emergency-preparedness-response-recovery/embc/preparedbc/one_step_at_a_time_guide_to_disaster_recovery.pdf 
  7. Build Fax. Post-Hurricane Recovery: How Long Does it Take? https://webassets.inman.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/BuildFax-Hurricane-Recovery-Study.pdf 
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