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Protecting Vulnerable Populations from Floods - Part 1

Hurricane Ida brought record rainfall and lethal flooding on 9/1/2021 across the Eastern seaboard. A dozen people died in their basements in New York City. I had been thinking a lot about those dozen people and the multitude and complicated set of long-standing social and environmental issues, decisions, politics, injustices, infrastructure, regulations, climate change and more that led to their deaths. And then on 9/4, I learned that my own parents were dealing with their own flooding situation that, god forbid, could have resulted in their serious injury or worse.

In my mom and dad’s situation in Paoli, PA, floodwaters came down the hill from another neighborhood, scoured the hillside above a retention facility, overwhelmed the retention facility, scoured the hillside below the retention facility, flowed around the horseshoe of the street and came into my parent's home as well as at least one other neighbor's home that I am aware of (the water blew a refrigerator out the back door in that house, to give an idea of the velocity).

Failed retention facility - scoured above (top) from unmitigated surface stormwater flow, scoured below (bottom) from overflow:


My parents are elderly and my father is not of good health. One of my brothers lives with them and tried to hold the door closed to keep the water out but was unsuccessful. My father managed to open the back door and the floodwater flowed through after filling the whole bottom floor with 1-2' water.

My brother and husband taking up one of two rugs - the door shown with my mom is the back door where the floodwaters exited the home:


My father was primarily living on the bottom floor as we had the bottom bathroom retrofit to be handicapped accessible. His medical bed was on this same floor as well as a chair that can move up and down to help him get in and out from a sitting position. His oxygen tank (that thankfully still works) was here, covered in floodwater.

Living area where my dad's medical bed and chair were - furniture has since been moved outside to dry, or tossed, the rug was taken up and thrown away:


One or both of my parents could have easily been injured or worse in this incident. My father cannot get up from the ground even without being surrounded by floodwater, let alone in it. I am grateful that they are safe. My dad had continued to live in the downstairs "swamp" for 2 days after the flooding. When my husband and I got there, we immediately got fans down from the attic, opened windows and doors, pulled furniture outside, took up the rugs and got dad moved upstairs. The insurance will not cover any of the damage. I am reaching out to the public works and stormwater management people in the township and county to see what immediate resources can be provided to my parents and impacted neighbors and what long term solutions are being considered for the larger stormwater issue. At a minimum, a storm drainage system should be installed on the street to get excess water off the road (there is no drainage currently).


I was born in Chester County, PA, and my parent's home 47 years ago. We had never experienced this before. I have a good understanding of watersheds, stormwater and flooding and have been actively involved in flood remediation efforts for Ellicott City, MD that has suffered several devastating floods. Yet I would not have expected this situation though I am well aware of the inadequate stormwater management in the area, drainage problems surrounding the neighborhood, the Superfund site at the railroad station that polluted the stream that I played in when I was little and helped to initiate my career in the environmental industry. I understand climate change and that we will only be seeing more storms of increased frequencies and intensities. My professional life and organization have been becoming more focused on how we can support vulnerable populations before, during and after immediate crises and the intersection of natural climate solutions and workforce development / green jobs within the totality of our mess. This situation has given me a new perspective because as much as I know about all of these issues, I didn’t anticipate such a thing as this happening to my own parents.

I will be following up with another blog focused on the intersection of emergency preparedness and response, MS4 permit compliance, climate change, water quality and habitat and #greenjobs programming. We have developed an excellent model in Howard County, MD that can be replicated elsewhere. In the meantime, I want to leave some incredible advice for flood clean-up that was given to me from friends in Ellicott City during the ride up to help my folks. I also encourage you to check out our Nonstructural Floodproofing document.

Lori Lilly

Executive Director, Howard EcoWorks



Clean-up advice from flood survivors in Ellicott City that have experienced multiple floods

DO check that your running water is safe to drink and to use for cleaning

DO flush your toilet before you use it to check for clogs from mud and debris

DO check for cabinets and other items that may be ready to fall over

DO temporarily patch holes in the walls and roof with plastic wrap and repair floors and roof sections with 4X4s if you can do so safely

DO remove debris

DO remove water trapped in walls

DO open all the doors and windows to improve ventilation

DO use a wet vac, shop vac, fans, dehumidifiers and desiccants (materials that absorb moisture) to start drying out the property.

DO wear protective clothing, boots and rubber gloves

DO wash your hands often with soap and water

DO remove all wall coverings and throw them out, as they may harbor mold

DO remove drywall, finished ceilings and most insulation that’s been in contact with flood water

DO throw out permeable materials such as padded furniture and foam rubber

DO throw out all exposed food, beverages and medicine, including canned goods

DO disinfect dishes and other items with soap and hot water, but throw out all soft plastics

DO clean hard surfaces with hot water and soap or detergent

Do wipe down wooden items and, if possible, take them elsewhere to dry out

DO preserve items such as books, documents and photographs in re-sealable bags and freeze them to be cleaned later

DO place aluminum foil or wood blocks in between wet floors and the legs of furniture that can’t be moved

DO make a list of the damage and take photos or videos

DO keep a piece of damaged floor and wall coverings to show your insurance assessor

DO check with your mortgage holder before cashing home insurance checks, especially if the damage is extensive

DO get a supply of Shockwave treatment and paint to kill the mold

DO get a keyhole saw to cut out the drywall that got wet & make sure you remove 12" above the water line to remove any threat of mold (it grows fast)

DO pick up lots of toothbrushes for cleaning the intricate items (silt gets into the smallest spaces on recovered items)

With clothing that was embedded with silt and sludge, bucket agitate / rinse 2-3 times, then 2 washing machine cycles (soap optional), air dry as needed. I had good luck with suede and fine fabrics. And the floor fans: B-Air FIRTANA-20X High Velocity Electric Industrial and Home Floor Fan, 20"

I spent a TON of time/quarters at the local laundromat. They asked me if I was in the flood and they assured me their pro machines could handle the worst.. -first time- and they did! Very cost effective.

My advice is to pretend you’re in ‘Vegas every time you feed a $20 into the change machine and get a big payout in quarters. You gotta appreciate any small joy you can find. Also it helped that the laundromat was next-door to “VietPearl” with quick appetizers, draughts, and *charismatic* employees in between loads. Find a laundromat next to a restaurant- put the silt through their pro machines! Worth it!

Techniques for sanitizing and cleaning flooded items

  • First things first: call your insurance agent. If your insurance covers the damage, your agent will tell you when an adjuster will contact you. List damage and take photos or videotape as you clean. You’ll need complete records for insurance claims, applications for disaster assistance and income tax deductions.

  • Contaminated mud – Shovel out as much mud as possible, then use a garden sprayer or hose to wash away mud from hard surfaces.

  • Clean and disinfect every surface. Scrub surfaces with hot water and a heavy-duty cleaner. Then disinfect with a solution of 1/4 cup chlorine bleach per gallon of water or a product that is labeled as a disinfectant to kill germs. In the kitchen– Immerse glass, porcelain, china, plastic dinnerware and enamelware for 10 minutes in a disinfecting solution of 2 tablespoons of chlorine bleach per gallon of hot water. Air-dry dishes. Do not use a towel. Disinfect silverware, metal utensils, and pots and pans by boiling in water for 10 minutes. Chlorine bleach should not be used in this case because it reacts with many metals and causes them to darken. Cupboards and counters need to be cleaned and rinsed with a chlorine bleach solution before storing dishes.

  • Furniture and household items – Take furniture, rugs, bedding and clothing outside to dry as soon as possible. Use an air conditioner or dehumidifier to remove moisture or open at least two windows to ventilate with outdoor air. Use fans to circulate air in the house. If mold and mildew have already developed, brush off items outdoors to prevent scattering spores in the flooded house.

  • Vacuum floors, ceilings and walls to remove mildew, then wash with disinfectant. Wear a two-strap protective mask to prevent breathing mold spores.

  • Mattresses should be thrown away. Upholstered furniture soaks up contaminants from floodwaters and should be cleaned only by a professional. Wood veneered furniture is usually not worth the cost and effort of repair. Solid wood furniture can usually be restored, unless damage is severe.

  • Toys and stuffed animals may have to be thrown away if they’ve been contaminated by floodwaters.

  • Photographs, books and important papers can be frozen and cleaned later. They should be dried carefully and slowly. Wash the mud off and store the articles in plastic bags and put them in a frost-free freezer to protect from mildew and further damage until you have time to thaw and clean them or take them to a professional.

  • Ceilings and walls– Wallboard acts like a sponge when wet. Remove wallboard, plaster and paneling to at least the flood level. If soaked by contaminated floodwater, it can be a permanent health hazard and should be removed. If most of the wallboard was soaked by clean rainwater, consider cutting a 4- to 12-inch-high section from the bottom and top of walls. This creates a “chimney effect” of air movement for faster drying. A reciprocating saw with a metal cutting blade works well, but use only the tip of the blade and watch out for pipes, duct work and wiring. Plaster and paneling can often be saved, but air must be circulated in the wall cavities to dry the studs and sills.

  • The three kinds of insulation must be treated differently. Styrofoam might only need to be hosed off. Fiberglass matts should be thrown out if muddy but may be reused if dried thoroughly. Loose or blown-in cellulose should be replaced since it holds water for a long time and can lose its anti-fungal and fire retardant abilities.

  • Electrical system– The system must be shut off and repaired and inspected by an electrician before it can be turned back on. Wiring must be completely dried out- even behind walls. Switches, convenience outlets, light outlets, entrance panel, and junction boxes that have been under water may be filled with mud. Heating and cooling systems and ducts – Will need inspection and cleaning. Flood-soaked insulation should be replaced.

  • Appliances – Appliances will get stains, odors, silt deposits, and gritty deposits and need to be serviced, cleaned and sanitized. Running equipment before it is properly cleaned could seriously damage it and/or shock you. Professional cleaning is recommended for electronics, TVs and radios, washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, and vacuum cleaners. The hard exterior can be hand cleaned. All metallic appliances that have been flooded should be properly grounded to prevent electric shock. Mud or dirt in a grounded outlet or adapter may prevent the grounding system from working, and you could be electrocuted.

  • Pump out the basement– What to do when your house floods and you are stuck wondering how to cleanup concrete basement floor after a flood? If your basement is full or nearly full of water, pump out just 2 or 3 feet (0.91 m) of water each day. If you drain the basement too quickly, the pressure outside the walls will be greater than the pressure inside the walls. That may make the walls and floor crack and collapse. Flood damage cleanup is serious and should be dealt with professionals especially when experience mud flood.

  • Floors– How to soak up water from floor? With wood sub-flooring, the floor covering (vinyl, linoleum, carpet) must be removed so the sub-flooring can dry thoroughly which may take several months. Open windows and doors to expose the boards to as much air as possible.

  • Carpeting – What to do after a flood for carpets? Carpet cleaning after flood needs to be completed ASAP. Clean and dry carpets and rugs as quickly as possible. If sewage-contaminated floodwater covered your carpeting, discard it for health safety reasons. Also discard if the carpet was under water for 24 hours or more. To clean, drape carpets and rugs outdoors and hose them down. Work a disinfecting carpet cleaner into soiled spots with a broom. To discourage mildew and odors, rinse with a solution of 2 tablespoons bleach to 1 gallon water, but don’t use this solution on wool or nylon carpets. Dry the carpet and floor thoroughly before replacing the carpet. Padding is nearly impossible to clean so should be replaced. If the carpet can’t be removed, dry it as quickly as possible using a wet/dry vacuum and dehumidifier. Use a fan to circulate air above the carpet, and if possible, lift the carpet and ventilate with fans underneath. Vinyl flooring and floor tile may need to be removed to allow drying of sub-floor.

  • Wood floors – Flood damage cleanup for wooden floors should be dried gradually. Sudden drying could cause cracking or splitting. Some restoration companies can accelerate drying time by forcing air through the fluted underside of hardwood floorboards. Remove hardwood floor boards to prevent buckling. Remove a board every few feet to reduce buckling caused by swelling. Clean and dry wood before attempting repairs.

  • Roof damage and leaks – Defective flashing – House flooded from a storm? Flashing is the sheet metal used in waterproofing roof valleys, hips and the angle between a chimney and a roof. According to Durafoam Roofing Contractors in Phoenix, wet spots near a chimney or outside wall may mean the leak is caused by defective flashing, narrow flashing or loose mortar joints. Look for corroded, loose or displaced flashing on sloping roof valleys and at junctions of dormers and roof is the best water damage cleanup tips when your roof is the cause.

  • Clogged downspouts or eaves – Water flooding in old houses can cause havoc. Check for choked downspouts. Accumulated water or snow on the roof that may cause a leak. Ice accumulations on eaves sometimes form ridges, which cause melting snow to back up under the shingles. Cracks and deterioration – Roofing (especially wood or composition shingles) usually deteriorates first on southern exposures. Check southern slopes for cracking or deterioration. Flood house repairs should be dealt with local water damage professionals. Holes – Missing shingles or holes in the roofing may be causing wet spots. To find holes, check for a drip trail or spot of light coming through in the attic. Stick a nail, straw or wire through the hole to mark the spot on the outside.

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