After the Storm: Tips to Safely Enter Your Property

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Natural disasters, seasonal storms and floods strike with little warning and leave a path of destruction in their wake, affecting families including children, homeowners, rental occupants, businesses -- everyone. Violent storms damage both property and structures, affecting thousands, if not millions of homeowners, often requiring significant repairs or reconstruction. However, amidst aid and often chaos, personal health and the harmful contaminants that are dispersed with wind, rain and severe flooding are often forgotten.

Structural damage such as a cracked foundations or broken windows increase risks of potentially harmful materials entering the home. This also means that poisonous chemicals and dangerous debris can travel great distances, contaminating land, watersheds, and living conditions. To protect relief volunteers and those affected by a storm, we’re sharing common post-storm contaminants, tips, procedures and precautions to consider before entering a building that has withstood a natural disaster, severe storm, or flood.

Step 1 - Know The Common Contaminants

Varying pollution levels and local regulations make it a challenge to predict exactly what a homeowner could come in contact with. Therefore, play it safe. Do not disturb or handle any loose debris yourself. Instead, request hazmat first responders or hire remediation specialists that are trained and equipped to inspect, remove, and dispose of potentially hazardous materials. Certified restoration and abatement companies can properly identify and address three types of contamination while complying to OSHA required mandates.

Solids: Inorganic solids and debris, like construction materials such as siding, insulation, ceiling tiles and roofing shingles that contain asbestos should not be disturbed. If asbestos-containing materials are damaged by wind or human contact, it can easily put you at risk for exposure (inhalation of asbestos fibers), resulting in a cancer that has been known to have an unfortunate life span projection, mesothelioma. Although asbestos use has greatly decreased since the late 1980s, structures built before 1990 may house asbestos-containing products that could be damaged by severe weather. For example, when Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast in 2012, relief efforts were hindered by asbestos contamination. Other harmful solids that should not be handled include biomedical supplies, human waste, and molds. Only remediation experts wearing protective equipment, non-rip clothing, and respiration masks should handle and dispose of non-organic hazardous solids. Homeowners can remove organic solids like trees and shrubs, however, it’s important to consult local trash regulations and wear protective clothing like gloves and masks.

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Liquids: Human waste, fuels, industrial runoff, and household chemicals often contaminate residual floodwaters. If possible, homeowners should avoid all contact with such unless wearing proper protective equipment. Common household chemicals can be caustic and cause serious burns or irritations to exposed skin. Flooded areas also become a breeding ground for virus-carrying insects and bacteria, like Salmonella and E.coli. Therefore, the removal of floodwater should only be handled by a certified water remediation team.

Gases: Storm winds and water can damage propane or natural gas lines and cause soils to shift, releasing radioactive radon. If you smell gas, contact your local fire department immediately. Once deemed safe, you can try to locate the source. Following severe flooding where topsoil has been exposed, test for abnormal or fluctuating radon levels as prolonged exposure to high concentrations of radon causes lung cancer. Among non-smokers, radon is the primary cause for lung cancer deaths in the U.S. Nearly seven million homes built on top of soils contain higher than average levels of radon, yet monitoring this carcinogenic gas is not required by law.

Step 2 - Initial Property Inspection

If you left the property for any reason during the storm, it’s essential to have the physical property inspected by a local certified professional before exploring the property and entering any structure. Professionals will check for any obvious or hidden signs of soil erosion or ground faults, broken gas or power lines, fallen trees, foreign debris, and potentially contaminated materials. For your own records, homeowners should document and photograph any and all issues pointed out by the inspector. In recent news, aerial drone imaging is being used to locate and inspect heavily damaged properties. Working directly with insurance providers, homeowners can have drones photograph damage, expediting a claim process that could otherwise take weeks to perform onsite. Aerial inspections reduce the demand placed on certified building inspectors and speed up inspection processes, save money and keep individuals safe from potential hazards. Once the surrounding property has been deemed safe, the inspector will start a structural inspection.

Step 3 - Structural Inspection:

An external inspection consists of first looking for critical faults, foundation cracks, or signs that the building is unsound in any way. Put simply, a building must look stable enough to be inspected safely. If all looks safe, they’ll perform a top to bottom inspection of interior structural components using high tech equipment that can detect potentially dangerous faults or cracks, hazardous materials, or excessive moisture resulting from storm damage. Once a physical inspection is complete, it is important to photograph and document any sustained structural damage. You will be required to provide this evidence to your mortgage servicer, insurance company, and FEMA when applying for Disaster Recovery Assistance. A trusted inspector will be able to refer you to a local remediation specialist that will address your property's specific needs. Even minor property damage can lead to more costly structural concerns down the road, so it’s worth inspecting and addressing the issue immediately.

Step 4 - Monitoring Conditions

Before and after disaster remediation it’s essential to test and monitor air quality. Detectors and indoor air monitoring equipment, help homeowners detect any potentially hazardous changes in air quality resulting from contamination, unaddressed storm damage, or fumes from construction materials and paints. Smart-home technology has made detecting gases and other air contaminants easier. For example, the uHoo is a home air monitoring device capable of sensing temperature, humidity, VOCs, dust, air pressure, smoke, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone levels in the home. Once paired with a smartphone, homeowners can easily view live data, set alerts, and access live air quality updates. In fact, monitoring air quality is something every homeowner should do to maintain a healthy home.

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