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Metro Detroit

Be safe when your basement becomes a lake

August 27, 2014

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Rizzo Environmental Services employees dispose of flood-damaged items along East Lincoln in Royal Oak Aug. 16. Health officials advise that “when in doubt, throw it out.”

METRO DETROIT — Many Detroit-area homeowners just experienced the most extreme flooding of their lifetimes, and local experts want them to know that when dealing with water in their basements, safety should always come first.

The brutal storm that battered much of the region Aug. 11 left thousands of homeowners scrambling to make quick decisions after the world outside forced its way inside, often in the form of contaminated floodwater filling their basements. Suddenly, it became imperative that they not only get the water out and clean up the mess left behind, but also figure out which personal items could be salvaged and which were beyond repair.

Bill Ridella, director and health officer of the Macomb County Health Department, advised homeowners to follow one simple motto if faced with a similar situation again.

“When in doubt, throw it out,” he said. “People need to realize that this was not simply water — it was sewage — and any sewage that comes into their basement presents a serious health risk. It’s contaminated with bacteria, fecal matter and other microorganisms that can make you sick.”

Tom Dempsey, owner and president of Centurion Services in Warren, which provides flood restoration assistance for residents, was even more blunt.

“Do not assume that just because the water is clear that it’s safe,” he said. “The water that came into people’s basements (on Aug. 11) is grossly unsanitary. It’s the equivalent of raw sewage and should be treated as such. That water crawled across Mother Earth and picked up feces, urine, dead animals and God knows what else, and then it flooded into your basement.”

With that in mind, Ridella and Dempsey recommended throwing away any wet materials that carry the risk of contamination, including carpet, tile, upholstery, wood and drywall. Any items that homeowners wish to save, meanwhile, need to be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized.

“Certain things can be salvaged if they are properly disinfected, but a lot of these materials are just never going to dry out completely,” Ridella said. “It’s all a judgment call for the homeowner, but people need to realize that most things can be replaced.”

If homeowners feel overwhelmed by the cleanup process, they can always contact a flood restoration company like Centurion Services or the Center Line-based Magic Cleaning Services. According to Magic president Larry Cohen, the severity of the flooding that many homeowners experienced on Aug. 11 was too severe for them to handle by themselves.

“I’ve been in this business for 14 years, and I’ve never, ever seen the phone ringing off the hook like that,” he said. “We’re not even close to being able to keep up with the demand. But if someone doesn’t know what to do, they should obviously call a professional who can come in and quickly analyze the situation and figure out what to do next.”

Those with only minor flooding in their basements, or who want to attempt the cleanup process on their own, should always take proper precautions, he added. According to Kathy Forzley, manager and health officer of the Oakland County Health Division, this means wearing rubber boots, rubber gloves, disposable clothing, goggles and masks, as well as keeping children, pets and pregnant women away from the flooded area.

All restoration work should begin by draining the basement as thoroughly as possible, either by natural drainage or by pumping. The nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes Inc. offered an extensive list of cleanup tips for homeowners to follow as next steps:

• Assess the stability of any plaster and drywall. Any bulging or swelling ceilings indicate damage that should be removed. Press upward on drywall ceilings, and if nail heads appear, drywall will need to be re-nailed but can be saved. Remove any wet drywall and insulation well above the high-water mark.

• Wash and disinfect all floors and other surfaces with a solution of a half cup of bleach and 2 gallons of water. Concrete surfaces, meanwhile, should be cleaned and disinfected using a mixture of trisodium phosphate and water. Liquid cleaners can remove mud, silt and greasy deposits, while liquid detergents work well on washable textiles.

• Remove any wallpaper and coverings that came into contact with floodwater. Don’t repair or repaint anything until drying is complete and humidity levels in the home have dropped. To prevent warping of wooden doors, remove and disinfect all knobs and hardware, and then lay them flat to allow them to air-dry completely.

• Open doors and windows throughout the home, and use fans and dehumidifiers to dry out interior spaces. Clean and disinfect all heating, air conditioning and ventilation ducts to avoid the spread of airborne germs and mold spores.   To prevent growth of microorganisms, all household items should be dried completely before they are brought back inside, a process that can take longer than expected.

Forzley stressed the importance of this final step. Homeowners should make sure that any salvaged items are dry, she said, and discard anything that remains damp several days after the flood.

“People need to get all items out of their basement as soon as possible before mold growth can set in,” she explained. “Don’t let things just sit in the water for too long, or it will be too late to save them. And if there’s any possibility of sewage contamination (with an item), then just throw it out — it really is not worth the risk.”

Dempsey recognized that it might be difficult for people to get rid of certain family possessions that have sentimental value, but he recommended throwing away any items that were damaged by floodwater unless the homeowner absolutely needs them.

“If there’s something that is special to you and you want to salvage it, then it needs to be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected,” he said. “This type of water is very dangerous, so people need to take it very seriously. Maybe some things that got wet can be kept, but I wouldn’t take that chance.”

Ridella believes that there is a broader lesson to be learned from the flooding of Aug. 11. He viewed it as a reminder to local families that natural disasters can strike at any time.

“We all need to have emergency preparedness plans in place in our household,” he said. “And beyond just having a plan, people need to make sure that they and everyone in their family knows what that plan is. Always be prepared for the worst, because something like this could happen again.”

Forzley echoed that sentiment. She suggested that as tragic as the Aug. 11 flood was for some residents, it also served as a powerful wake-up call that Mother Nature can always infiltrate our lives in violent and shocking ways.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to recover from this,” Forzley said. “When we’re not exposed to flooding like this on a regular basis, we tend to underestimate how long it can take for the community to bounce back from it. Sometimes we get too comfortable with the idea that this type of thing doesn’t happen around here and we forget that yes, actually, it can happen here, too.”

For more flood cleanup tips, visit the Oakland County Health Division website at and click on the “Flood Safety” link, or call the Macomb County Environmental Health Division at (586) 469-5236. Further information can be found at


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