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12 Tips for Cleaning Your Home After a Flood, Hurricane or Tornado

Following severe storms, assess water damage, bring safety gear and save what you can

spinner image a black SUV stuck in the mud after heavy rain in southern California
Extreme weather events, like the storms in California this February, have become more common — and the cleanup can be daunting.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo

Los Angeles and other parts of California have received record amounts of rain, causing dangerous floods and mudslides.

​Extreme weather events — flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, major thunderstorms — are becoming more common in the U.S., and the aftermath can feel as overwhelming as the event itself, as people figure out how to navigate repairs while trying to rebuild their lives. ​

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If your home was in a particularly hard-hit area in the path of high winds or surging water, assessing property damage can be daunting. You could face power outages, water and wind damage, standing water, and the need for debris removal, plus mold and grime.

​Still, an effective cleanup is possible if you plan carefully. Here are suggestions for how to stay safe, limit further damage to your home and ensure you’re documenting property damage appropriately for when it’s time to sort out the post-storm mess.​

1. Don’t rush to return ​

More on Storm Cleanup

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s site offer additional information on responding after a disaster or flood.

Head home to assess damage only when local authorities say it’s safe to do so. Wait until floodwaters have adequately receded and roadways have been cleared of fallen debris and power lines. ​

2. Come prepared with proper safety gear​

​Your home may not have electricity when you return, so pack flashlights or battery-powered lanterns and charge your smartphone beforehand. Also, remember that when hurricane floodwaters enter your home, the water can bring with it “an unknown level of contaminants,” says David Ragsdale, a production manager with Servpro Industries. To protect yourself against potential bacteria and mold, pack plenty of N95 masks and gloves. Ragsdale recommends latex or nitrile gloves — or even simple dishwashing gloves — for cleanup.​

Wear closed-toe, sturdy shoes, long pants and long sleeves. Watch out for glass, nails or other debris that could poke through a shoe or clothing. 

3. Check the exterior for safety hazards and structural damage​

Before entering the house, check for evidence of downed power lines, gas line leaks, large tree limbs that may have fallen on your roof, or other signs of major structural damage. If you note any of these safety risks, don’t enter without getting a professional opinion about your home’s structural safety. ​

Video: What to Do After Disaster Strikes

4. Document everything​

Once inside, take photos of everything as it is — before you begin cleaning up. Walk through the house and photograph or record a video of each room carefully, noting any damage to the house itself, as well as your furniture, electronics and other personal property. Even photograph the insides of closets, cabinets and drawers. Don’t throw anything to the curb without photographing it first — if you do, it will be difficult to provide your insurance company with a complete damage inventory, says Jim Taylor, head of claims customer relations for Farmers Insurance. ​

5. Contact your insurance agent as soon as possible​

Don’t put off making a call to your insurance company’s claims hotline. “Once you get back to your property and you see what the extent of the damage is, that’s the best time to notify your insurance company, and you would want to do that as soon as practicable,” Taylor says.​

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6. Address water damage​

​After major flooding subsides, clean up any remaining stormwater residue and dirt using a wet/dry vacuum or push brooms and mops. Open windows and use fans (if you have electricity or a generator) to help dry out soaked-in moisture in walls and floors. Remove and replace overly soggy or damaged drywall and insulation. “Those things are obviously going to take in water, and that’s the kind of stuff you need to cut out and get rid of,” says Connie McNamara, a volunteer with Team Rubicon, a veteran-led humanitarian organization that has responded to more than 1,100 major storms and humanitarian crises throughout the world, including Hurricane Ian. ​

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7. Clean and sanitize items that are salvageable​

​Depending on how long floodwater was in your home, you may be able to salvage cabinetry, wood and metal furniture, countertops and dishes with a bit of careful cleaning. Use products designed for wood to clean and restore wood furnishings, as long as they’re not overly warped. Use bleach wipes or other sanitizing products to clean and disinfect kitchen countertops, bathrooms and other solid surfaces. Wash soaked clothes quickly to avoid losing them to hard-to-remove mold or mildew stains, Ragsdale says.​

8. Discard damaged items appropriately ​

​Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing you can do to save water-damaged upholstered furniture, electronics and appliances. When placing damaged property items at the curb, be sure to group them appropriately — placing home debris separately from organic matter such as tree limbs and spoiled food, for example — so they can be picked up according to your city’s municipal waste disposal guidelines, McNamara says. ​

Communities manage disaster debris differently, depending on the options available. Burying or burning debris may not be permitted, due to smoke and potential water and soil contamination, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Typical recycling and solid waste disposal methods also may not apply to disaster debris because of the large volume of waste. Check with your local agency on the best ways to get rid of debris from disasters.

9. Give heirlooms special attention​

​To salvage photograph albums and other special documents, either deliver them promptly — while still wet — to a remediation company that offers document restoration services, or attempt to dry them out yourself by separating the pages and laying them on towels or shelves to dry, Ragsdale says.​

10. Seal off any home gaps caused by storm damage ​

​To make your home livable — and rainproof — until permanent repairs can be done, use plywood boards or plastic tarps to seal broken windows or other small siding or roof gaps. These steps are essential to “mitigate further home damage,” Taylor says.​

11. Hire reputable cleanup crews​

​Don’t be taken in by scam artists hoping to capitalize on a natural disaster. If you plan to hire companies to help with debris removal or storm and water damage cleanup, vet them thoroughly. “Read company reviews and take the time to get multiple quotes,” suggests Mallory Micetich, a home expert with Angi. “Yes, it will be hard — since pros are going to be in high demand. But the more time you take to do that, the better outcomes you’ll have with your recovery efforts.”​

12. Reach out for help when you need it​

​Remember that hurricane cleanup can be a long process. At various points, you may feel emotionally and physically drained. In those moments, don’t be afraid to reach out for help from friends and family — even if it’s just to have a clean place to shower and enjoy a hot meal. If needed, seek out financial and personal assistance available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other organizations — such as the American Red Cross — that specialize in providing disaster relief services. ​

Editor's note: This article was originally published on September 30, 2022. It has been updated to reflect new information. 

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