Published 7:28 AM EDT Oct 11, 2018
The strongest hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle in recorded history blew away roofs and snapped trees with winds of up to 155 mph, just two short of a Category 5.
And the news about Michael, now downgraded to a tropical storm, is about to get worse, as residents return to find their homes flooded by storm surge that reached 14 feet.
Though a hurricane’s power is typically measured by its winds, the storm surge is often just as destructive and even deadlier, accounting for about half the hurricane-related fatalities in the U.S. since 1970 and the majority of the 1,200 deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
For folks dealing with flooding, what to do after the hurricane has passed can be as important as pre-storm preparations.
Here are the key steps to take:
TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF
"Make sure you're emotionally OK," said Elaina Sutley, assistant professor of structural engineering at the University of Kansas. "Only then should you start assessing any structural damage."
What materials do I need? Make sure you have knee-high rubber boots, rubber gloves, long-sleeve clothing, a respirator, a flashlight, a camera and liquid bleach.
Where do I start? Start by turning off any gas or power to prevent explosions or electrocution. Then begin drying out your home and addressing the structural damage such as a wall collapse or sinking ceilings. And remember: There may still be water left either in the basement or seeping from soaked furniture.
Avoid coming in direct contact with any water, which may have been exposed to sewage, debris or dead animals. And let the house air out.
"You need to open up windows and doors. Let things dry out," Sutley said. Fans and dehumidifiers can help speed up the drying process.
While everything dries, which can take a few days, homeowners are encouraged to throw out any food left in the home along with any absorbent material that has come in contact with water. And wash dinnerware, glasses and flatware before using them again.
"If there was saltwater flooding, there might be corrosion, so get an electrician to look at that," said Jeffrey Schlegelmilch of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. "Even if it's not salt water, things could still be dangerous. Fact-check with a professional before plugging anything in."
What do I do with damaged items? Coastal areas that have experienced floods in the past will likely have protocols for picking up and handling debris such as drywall and furniture.
To prevent the spread of mold and mildew, you may also have to remove flooring and insulation. Ideally, have a professional company do a mold assessment soon after the flooding to help you decide what items must be discarded and what can be saved. Time is of the essence because mold can develop within 24 hours.
What can I keep? Family heirlooms, jewelry, photographs and other valuables can be air-dried and saved. Clean and disinfect them if they came in contact with floodwater.
What should I avoid? Most of all, standing water, which is likely to be contaminated. But also look out for wildlife like snakes, raccoons or any critters trapped in your home brought in by the floodwaters.
What happens if I wait? "If your home is just left to sit, it will continue to deteriorate, and it becomes even more of a health threat," Schlegelmilch said.
In other words, act now.
TAKING CARE OF YOUR WALLET
The sooner homeowners file claims with an insurance agency or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the faster a resolution can be reached. However, traditional homeowner policies don't cover flooding. Only flood insurance policies reimburse families for water damage caused by flooding.
"After Hurricane Matthew hit the southeastern United States, I worked on a project where we spoke to households and businesses about receiving assistance from their insurance or FEMA," Sutley said. "Most people who had insurance and filed a claim received help within 30 days. Most people who applied for FEMA had received it within a month.
What do I need? Insurance documents, home deeds and your Social Security card can get you started on making an insurance claim.
Photos and videos of the property both before and after the flood are also essential, since recovery agencies will likely request proof of the damage.
Where do I start? It's important to contact your insurance agency before you remove anything from your home. "Insurance companies sometimes want to send someone down to investigate before anything is taken out," Schlegelmilch said.
After contacting your insurance company, work can begin. Homeowners are encouraged to remove any carpet or drywall that has come in contact with water before mold starts to form.
"You don't want just to get surfaces to look clean; you want to make sure that there aren't any living mold spores," said Schlegelmilch, who recommended seeking guidance on which bleach to use from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What if I don't have insurance? It's pretty common for people not to have flood insurance, no matter their income level. In coastal regions, it may be mandatory. But for those who live further inland, there are often local aid options.
"Find out what types of public assistance is available in your area," Schlegelmilch said. "There are a lot of charities that pop up to help people get back in their homes. Some move people to the top of the list who are low-income or have disabilities."
To find out if you qualify for assistance or for more information, check FEMA's website disasterassistance.gov.