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What To Do When Your Basement Floods

Useful tips for handling the aftermath of a flooded basement

Basement flood becomes a yucky pond

The Earth revolves around the Sun. Objects fall at the same rate. Energy is always conserved. Basements flood. Some things just are.

If you've been lucky enough to never have had a flooded basement, you're the envy of many a homeowner. And it really is luck: even the most impeccable work done with the highest-quality materials can't stand up to the whims of nature. Nor can the inevitability of product failure be 100% protected against (we're assuming most homeowners are not implementing military-level safeguards and redundancies). Fortune's wheel spins capriciously, and when we're talking about a hole in the ground, it's not that paranoid to be paranoid about basement flooding.

When it comes to large-scale flooding, "prevention" is a hope, not a realistic goal. While things can be done to lessen risk (the installation of sump pumps, generators, and the preparation of backups), mitigation should be the primary focus if you're going to worry about this kind of thing at all. Should you descend the stairs one day and find your very own personal pond, anything you've done to prepare will be immediately rewarded.

So, what to do on that fateful day? First off, if you have several feet of water, it may not be worth it to do anything besides calling in the professionals. Most consumer equipment will have a difficult time managing all of that water, and the potential damage it causes can be widespread, severe, and sometimes hidden. You may, literally and figuratively, be out of your depth.

But let's say you aren't. In that case, do your best to find the cause and source of the flood. A burst pipe should be obvious - turn off the water supply if this is the culprit. If the skies have opened up during a big storm and you have inadequate runoff, improper grading around the house, a combined waste and stormwater system in your neighborhood, or a failed sump pump, bad things can happen. Sewer backups happen in good weather, as well: the wrong stuff being flushed, and/or tree root infiltration can really mess things up.

While you may not be able to pin down the exact source, the point here is to find out if the situation is an active case of flood-ing, or if it's entered the past tense. There's no point trying to get water out of a hole that's being refilled. Only when the source of the flood has been identified and stopped, or the water outside has begun to recede, should you begin the recovery process.

Quick Tip: Unless you're sure that the flood isn't due to a sewer backup, don't flush toilets or use sinks – it could make things worse.
Learn what to do in case of a sewer backup.

Before entering your pond, you'll need to have the electricity and gas shut off, even if power has been knocked out. While it is possible to do this on your own, we highly recommend seeking professional assistance when dealing with electrical systems - especially in a wet environment! If you need juice for the pump, we hope you know which breaker controls the basement power, so that you can run an extension cord (of proper gauge) from elsewhere.

Should you have the bad fortune to have the electrical panel in the basement, it's best to call the power company and have them disconnect the meter. The delay this might entail won't do much to worsen your situation: the water is already there, and the bulk of the damage has been done. It's really not worth it to try to use boards and broom handles to reach the panel - stuff can be replaced, YOU CANNOT.

Once the electrocution risk has been removed, you'll need to get your outfit ready. Even if the flood isn't the result of a sewer backup, sewage and other contaminants can find their way into the water, which means it's time to play Hazmat! Gloves, safety glasses, a respirator or safety mask, and rubber boots should keep you safe.

Even without electricity, a flooded basement can be dangerous. Always have at least one other person helping you out.

Ideally, you have a gas-powered generator, pump, and/or a wet-dry vacuum of some power. These can be rented or borrowed, but in the event of a major storm, you may be out of luck. If you have the means, it's best to invest in these things – you might even end up being someone else's savior!

When using a pump, be sure the floodwater is drained far away enough from the house to not make its way back in. Whatever method you use to remove the water, go about it slowly (as counterintuitive as that sounds): the water in the basement could be balancing pressure from water outside the house, and if drained too quickly could result in structural damage. Stop at any sign of cracking or buckling in walls or the floor, and call a pro.

Quick Tip: Got flood insurance? Don't forget a camera or phone in the craziness. Photos documenting the flood and its damage will (hopefully) come in handy when dealing with the insurance company.

Besides the pumps and other hardware, two of the most helpful things to have are patience and levity. The latter because... well, your basement's flooded. You could be looking at some expensive repairs, and you may have lost some treasured or otherwise important things. Thing is, not much can be done once it's happened. Try to find ways to laugh about the situation, dire as it is – gallows humor is good for the soul. As for patience, you'll definitely need that when it comes to the drying-out (which can take weeks), and maybe even the water removal, depending on the power of your pump/vacuum/bucket brigade.

Once the standing water is out – and if you have power available - hook up any and all fans at your disposal to get the air circulating. If you have a dehumidifier or air-conditioner, great! Use it for all it's worth (dehumidifiers can also be rented, but may be as hard to find as pumps and generators after a significant event). Keep windows and doors closed, though – if you don't, outside moisture will find its way in, forcing the dehumidifier to work overtime and decreasing its effectiveness. Conversely, if you don't have a dehumidifier, open up the windows and doors to get some more air moving.

Any wet carpet, furniture, boxes, and other items need to be removed as soon as the basement is drained. The concern now is mold. The carpet will be lost, but some furniture may be salvageable. Have someone remove boxed items and dry them with towels or a blow-dryer. Smaller waterlogged appliances should be considered lost, and a professional will need to inspect washing machines, dryers, water heaters and other larger appliances for damage.

If the drywall has been saturated, it will need to be cut out and replaced. To help the interior of the walls dry out, consider removing any baseboards and drilling inch-wide holes between studs, about two inches off the ground. Avoid wiring by staying below the level of power outlets. This will allow the circulating air to enter inside the walls and hopefully dry out the wood before serious damage sets in.

And then, you wait. The safest route to go is to have a home inspector specializing in mold come out to verify the basement is dry, and test for any spores. Should you spot any mold before that point, the CDC and EPA recommend against using a chlorine bleach solution (outside certain circumstances, like in homes with respiratory-compromised individuals). Because you'll never kill all the mold anyway - even with bleach - it ends up being safer and more effective to simply clean vigorously with water and detergent. The most important factor in defeating mold is a dry environment (spores that remain after cleaning will die without sufficient moisture) so keep those fans and dehumidifiers running to ensure things dry properly.

Basements can be anything from forgotten pits to completely finished, furnished rooms. Wherever they fall, their vulnerability makes them one of the most important areas of any home. Whether you incur the wrath of mother nature, or that 40 year old pipe finally gives up the ghost, if you find yourself with a flooded basement, don't panic! By acting swiftly and smartly, there's a good chance you can avoid serious damage, as well as mold. Try to invest in a pump (they're handy for all sorts of things and a generator, check your home for drainage issues, and store important things elsewhere (or off the ground, at the very least). With any luck, you'll be well-prepared for something that never happens.


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