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Coming Home After a Disaster: Things You Need to Know

Jody has written about emergency management and disaster topics for first responders for over 7 years and researched the topics for 19.

Louisiana Living Room after Hurricane Katrina

Louisiana Living Room after Hurricane Katrina

The Secondary Disaster: Debris Clean-up and Muck

When I wrote this article, Hurricane Irma was barreling toward Florida. Most South Floridians heeded the warnings and left after many Caribbean islands were badly damaged. Meanwhile, Texas was in week two of recovery from Hurricane Harvey, and the Western states were seeing one of the worst wildfire seasons in history. To say we were being battered was an understatement. During hurricane season, millions of Americans are at risk of needing disaster assistance, something so few of us think about until it is too late.

Many residents of hurricane- or storm-damaged areas focus on immediate needs of surviving the storm: evacuate or shelter-in-place? Do I have enough food and water for my family? Do I have all the necessities, like clothing and prescriptions? What about pets? What about everything else? It is an incredibly painful and scary thing to go through, but most people don't think about the secondary disaster waiting after the storm.

As the winds die down and the floodwaters recede, homes and businesses are subject to mold, mildew, raw sewage, and floating chemical hazards. Mud and other debris, including dead animals, must be cleaned up. On top of managing the overall shock of the storm and its impact, it is a lot to deal with. There are places you can turn to and things you should know when trying to work through this.

Who to Call for Assistance

Regardless of the state of your home and belongings, the first order of business is to take care of your family's needs, including food, shelter, and health care.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides financial assistance to people impacted by federally declared disasters. If you are in a heavily impacted area, there will likely be FEMA people canvassing the areas to help you sign up, and there may be Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) in a building (library, school, etc.) where you can go and sign up. The DRCs can help you get inspections for your property, food, and lodging; replace important identification documents; and more.

There are also Small Business Administration representatives to assist business with loans. Please see FEMA's website for more information on FEMA assistance. You may also call (800) 621-3362 / TTY (800) 462-7585 to apply during standard hours of operation (7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern Time), seven days a week.

In addition, DisasterAssistance.gov helps you find active shelters, open hospitals, lodging, and more. The American Red Cross and many, many other charities are also on the ground working to help.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to apply for disaster assistance. These programs are free of charge and are there to help you get back on your feet. It is your tax dollars at work.

Florida devastation from Hurricane Andrew, almost exactly 25 years ago

Florida devastation from Hurricane Andrew, almost exactly 25 years ago

Coming Home to Devastation

If you have had water damage to your home, be prepared to deal with a mold or mildew problem and a variety of other issues. There are numerous resources available for homeowners on these topics and I will attempt to address them below, but here are a few general sites that contain a number of different topics.

A group of government agencies wrote several guides to help homeowners and renters manage mold, radon, lead, and asbestos issues when cleaning up their homes and property. These reports and more information on these issues can be found on the Housing and Urban Development website linked above. They are also available in Spanish.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information available for homeowners on cleanup after disasters such as floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and more. Some of this information is available in both Spanish and French. It is extensive.

Hurricane Irma damage on Sint Maarten

Hurricane Irma damage on Sint Maarten

Mold and Mildew

After Hurricane Katrina, one of the biggest problems homeowners and businesses faced was mold. Flooded homes provide an ideal environment for mold to take hold and spread. Here are some resources to help mitigate this problem:

Chemical Hazards

The sheer amount of chemical cleaners and whatnot in our houses is incredible and during a hurricane or flood, it can get swept away, leak, and become a serious health and safety hazard, which people often forget about. Here are some resources on this:

Natural Gas, Propane, and Electricity

Did you know propane tanks float? Yup, and with the whipping wind, they can not only float but break off from their pipes and leak! Even worse, propane is heavier than air, which means it can pool in low places in your house, just waiting for a spark to set off a large, deadly explosion. Talk about dangerous! If you are in a flood zone, contact your propane provider and have them ensure it is properly secured. Here are some propane and natural gas resources:

Obviously, there is a serious threat of electrocution during flooding conditions and it is important to turn off power to your house before you evacuate. Here are some other things to think about:]

One of dozens of FEMA response facilities waiting to be deployed to the disaster zones

One of dozens of FEMA response facilities waiting to be deployed to the disaster zones

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.