Local experts share insight on flood safety, prevention tips

By: Mary Beth Almond | C&G Newspapers | Published August 19, 2014

METRO DETROIT — A flood can develop quickly, as the metro Detroit region recently discovered following record-breaking rainfall on Aug. 11. In a matter of hours — or even minutes — water can rapidly take over an area, stranding motorists, closing local roads and major freeways, and seeping into basements and businesses.

When you’re up to your knees — so to speak — in water, it’s important to know what you can do to return to dry land.

Safety concerns
First and foremost, state and county health officials reminded the public to stay out of flooded areas, if possible, to avoid injuries and potential contamination from hazardous raw sewage.

“If you see floodwater, you should definitely avoid it. It can contain chemicals, sewage and other overflow from all kinds of stuff. When there is torrential rain and flooding, the water goes everywhere; it goes into gas stations, it goes into sewage treatment plants, it can go all over, but you can prevent injuries by avoiding or minimizing exposure to floodwater,” said Ron Leix, a spokesperson for the Michigan Emergency Operations Center.

Flood water has many hidden dangers, he said. It moves faster than it appears — even six inches of fast-moving flood water can knock you off your feet, which can lead to drowning — it can carry dangerous debris, and it even poses the risk of electrical shock or electrocution if there are downed wires.

“Anytime there might be a possibility of a downed power line, you need to stay at least 25 feet away,” said Debra Mcintyre-Dodd, a spokesperson for Consumer’s Energy. “There could be debris — say a tree that came down, and it could be hidden — so you have to be careful. Don’t touch anything that the line could be touching — that could be a fence, a car, water — do not go near any of those things, because it can conduct electricity.”

Floodwater can also be very threatening to your health, according to the Oakland County Health Division, since it can contain sewage, mold, bacteria, viruses and other hazardous germs which can cause disease. That’s why every effort should be taken to avoid flooded areas in the home until flood waters drain. 

If floodwater reached a private well or covered the top of a well casing, residents should assume it has been contaminated, according to the Oakland County Health Division. Water from wells impacted by flooding is not safe for washing, cooking or consumption of any kind and should not be used until it is tested, inspected and disinfested by a well or pump contractor. Those with a municipal water supply should listen to public announcements about the safety of the water supply.

Assessing the damage
Following a flood, many home and business owners may be anxious to get everything cleaned up, but experts say it’s important to take certain safety precautions into account before jumping into action.

Before heading into a flooded area in your home, Mcintyre-Dodd said it’s important to make sure gas and electricity have been turned off. Requests to shut off gas to homes or businesses because of flooding in basements should be made to Consumers Energy at (800) 477-5050.

Health officials encourage residents to wear rubber gloves and protective clothing, waders or boots, and to cover all open cuts and sores with adhesive bandages, before coming in contact with flood water.

Homeowners can then use flashlights to examine the area — instead of matches, lighters or lanterns which could cause an explosion if flames mix with any built-up gases.

Anyone smelling the distinctive rotten egg odor associated with natural gas should leave the area immediately and call Consumer’s Energy, which will respond at no charge. However, Mcintyre-Dodd noted that for safety reasons, Consumers Energy employees cannot enter homes or businesses that have standing water inside.

Clean up
After flood waters recede, health officials say residents can drain their flooded basements naturally, or by pumping — again, wearing the proper clothing during clean-up.

All objects and surfaces that come into contact with flood waters should be cleaned, sanitized or discarded, health officials said. To clean up walls, hard-surfaced floors, cupboards, countertops and more, they recommending using plenty of soap or dishwashing products and hot water, if possible. After thoroughly cleaning areas, they recommend disinfecting by using 1 cup of household bleach per 5 gallons of water, providing as much ventilation as possible by opening windows and using fans or dehumidifiers.

Clothing, carpets, upholstered furniture, toys, bedding and similar items should be discarded unless they are cleaned and disinfected. Health officials say all linens and clothing should be washed in hot water and detergent or dry cleaned.  

As far as food goes, the Oakland County Health Division urges residents not to eat any items that may have come in contact with floodwater. They recommend that all food that was touched by floodwater be thrown away, including items contained in cardboard boxes and damaged canned goods. Undamaged commercially prepared foods in all metal cans and shelf stable pouches can be saved by removing the labels, wiping away any dirt or residue and thoroughly washing them in soap and water that is safe for drinking.

Mcintyre-Dodd said residents should never handle live electrical equipment in wet areas and notes that the equipment should be inspected by a qualified contractor before attempting to restart and use them.

“If someone has flooding in their house or business and it is even just a few inches, and affected any of your appliances, particularly natural gas appliances, we ask that you not attempt to re-light pilot lights or restart those appliances until you have had them inspected for safety by a qualified heating and cooling contractor. The would include water heaters, furnaces, clothes dryers, ranges or ovens, anything that might have been submerged in any amount of water,” she said.

Health officials say all clothing worn and any exposed areas of the body must thoroughly washed following the cleanup. Officials recommend washing your hands with soap and warm water — that has been boiled for 1 minute and cooled before washing your hands.

Once everything is cleaned up, homeowners do have some options to protect their home from flooding again. They can have a professional contractor install sewer backflow valves, add a sump pump in their basement, and even elevate or build a concrete or masonry block flood wall around HVAC equipment in flood-prone houses. The Michigan Emergency Operations Center also suggests raising appliances by placing them on cinder blocks 1 foot above the base flood elevation in flood-prone homes and cutting drywall so it is one-half of an inch to 1 inch off the floor  — especially in basements — to make sure moisture cannot wick up a wallboard, allowing mold to grow within the walls. Occasionally, following an emergency situation, Mcintyre-Dodd said people will go door-to-door masquerading as a contractor or a Consumer’s Energy employee.

“Just be cautious that you are dealing with reputable contractors with valid license, and if anybody comes to your door saying, ‘I’m with Consumer’s Energy; I need to get into your home,’ ask to see ID. All our employees carry photo ID,” she added.

Additional tips for dealing with floods and flooded basements are available on the Oakland County Health Division website at www.oakgov.com/health. Click on the “flood safety” button.

People with health concerns can call Oakland County’s nurse-on-call at (800) 858-5533.

Property owners are encouraged to work with their insurance agents if they wish to file a claim, and to contact the Michigan Department of Insurance and Financial Services at (877) 999-6442 with questions or concerns.