Shows man in an attic window. Flood waters come to about 5 feet below the window sill, completely covering the first floor.
Jim Harrell in the window of the attic where he and his parents waited out the flooding after Hurricane Matthew. Photo courtesy: Jim Harrell

By Catherine Clabby

When five N.C. State University Extension experts reached Jim Harrell’s house this week, it looked like a giant had picked the place up, filled it with filthy water, and spun it like a top.

The Harrel family removed flooded appliances from their home. They were not optimistic that most would be usable because water saturated electronic components. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

Out front, a crack shaped like a mini lightning bolt marred the brick foundation. Two new sink holes gaped on the ground. Smut left behind by black water was still chest-high on the front door.

Indoors a piano lay on its back on top of beige carpet littered with black dirt. Floral wallpaper in the kitchen had pucker. Oak-plank flooring in the living room was buckled. Bedding, toys and books sat piled in heaps.

Invisible but present was the intense stress that shadows families for months after natural disasters.

In the middle of it all, Professor Sarah Kirby looked straight at a video camera and offered clear, practical advice on how to prevent mold from sprouting within a home after flooding.

Kirby and colleagues converted homes in Harrell’s rural Wayne County neighborhood into field classrooms. They did it to produce instructional videos for how to clean up after major flooding, which occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in too many eastern North Carolina counties in early October.

The prime lesson: Cleaning up well after a flood washes filthy and polluted water through a home is more complex than most people can imagine.

But it can and must be done, in time, to protect families from breathing problems, illnesses, wound infections, chemical exposure, injury and more down the road, experts know, including specialists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Teaching among ruin

Mold normally does not grow inside well-sealed homes. But it can sprout in just 48 hours after flood waters fall, triggering asthma attacks, even infecting the lungs of people with weakened immune systems living within.

By this week, Ron Jacobs had removed everything that flood waters destroyed from his Grantham home. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

It’s tough to save any upholstered furniture soaked by flood waters, Kirby counseled during one of her video segments, knowing full well that news is tough on families, especially those with limited incomes. “By the time you take off the upholstery, check on the batting, and make sure the coils are not rusted, you are probably better off getting rid of it,” Kirby said.

Intuitive moves are not always the best practices after a flood, the experts stressed. Not all strong household cleaners kill mold, for one. Those containing phosphates actually feed fungi, which can promote mold growth.

Moving wet solid wood furniture into direct sun can cause it to dry too fast and swell, spoiling salvageable pieces. After soaked wallboard gets ripped out, simply touching the wood will not reveal if newly exposed struts are dry enough to covered up again. Only a moisture meter can tell when the moisture level falls below 15 percent.

Putting a spoiled mattress outdoors without using a box cutter to rip a big X on top is risky. Someone might unknowingly pick it up and bring it home.

Family photos don’t have to be discarded right away. They can be stored in plastic bags in a freezer where mold growth is temporarily halted.

“Give yourself time,” Kirby said.

Much to cover

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences cameraman and video producer Ken Ellzey followed the faculty experts inside and out of the Grantham community homes as they pointed out risks and served up advice on how to clean up.

Ben Chapman, a food safety expert, counseled people to throw away all non-perishable food, including pet food, unless it was stored in watertight containers. Canned foods are okay if the exteriors are sterilized in bleach solution before opening, he said. Lots of kitchen supplies can be saved, such as utensils, plates and mixing bowls that can be sanitized.

Ben Chapman explains the importance of being meticulous when sorting usable from nonusable items in a kitchen after flood waters breach a home. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

But ceramic serving dishes with cracks, electric mixers and toaster ovens with crevices where pathogens can hide and grow might never be safe, Chapman said. Even knives with wood handles rather than metal handles might need discarding if soaked by sewage-laced water.

“It’s not as simple as, is this metal or glass. You have to look at each item to see if could hold water,” Chapman said.

Mike Waldvogel, a pest control specialist, pointed out how floods rearrange dirt outside a home, making untreated soil bridges for termites eager to chew on damp wood within homes. Be sure to discard spilled animal feed too, he stressed, otherwise mice, rats and other vermin will be drawn toward a home.

People must take steps  to protect themselves during all stages of cleanup, Waldvogel said. Goggles are recommended when spraying harsh chemicals to remove mold.

“You don’t want to get chemicals into your eyes,” he said.

When the English speakers finished their segments, Ellzey recorded Wayne County Extension Agent Michelle Estrada repeating much of the dialogue in Spanish for the growing number of Latino people living in the eastern counties hit hardest by Hurricane Matthew.

Emotional wreckage too

Not all damage is physical after a disaster as big as Matthew’s flooding. Ask Ron Jacobs.

Just a few houses away from the Harrell home in Grantham, the retired school teacher had already moved anything wet, including wallboard, out of his home by the time the N.C. State crew arrived. But he could not evict some very bad memories.

When water started rising in his parcel on Hood Drive, he raced next door to bring his mother and father, both in their late eighties, to his place. When it crept higher, he got them into his attic, using belts to strap his wheelchair-bound dad onto his back to carry him up a floor.

That night parents and son endured hearing their miniature ponies struggle against and finally succumb to the high water. When the rain kept failing, Jacobs concluded they might have to abandon that attic.

He figured he’d use a door as a raft, somehow getting each of his parents to lay on it. Then he’d try to swim them to safety.

But with the darkness and the debris in fast-moving floodwater, he was not certain they would make it.

Jim Harrell’s family laid out scores of photos in a downstairs bathroom after flood waters receded. Drenched photographs can be rinsed and, sometimes, saved after a flood. Photo credit: Catherine Clabby

“I was thinking: I’m going to lose my mom and dad,” Jacobs said, until neighbors in skiffs reached the house at 3 a.m.

Mother, father and son escaped the attic in water so high that Jacobs could step from a window into the waiting boat. First they put a sheet under the father’s arms to lower him down.

Kim Allen, a N.C. State family life expert, stood in front of the camera amid debris in front of Jacobs’ stripped home where she urged disaster survivors to talk about their experiences and to accept help.

“All the people we’ve talked with this week say we do what we need to do… that’s true,” Allen said. “The more we can talk about what happened, the less we can keep it inside and have anxiety and stress.”

By day’s end, even the expert teachers were learning.

The scope of what flood survivors lost became a bit more visceral to Kirby as she perused neat piles of debris—insulation, a fridge, a bathroom cabinet and wall moldings among them—in Jacobs’ front yard.

“You walk through this and you can sort of grasp it,” the professor said, off camera this time. “But you can’t.”

For more information regarding safe flood cleanup, visit the Extension’s online disaster information center. In time, instructional videos created in the Grantham community will also be posted there.

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Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...