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updated: 7/26/2011 12:03 PM

How to properly clean flooded basements

Suburban residents left with mess after weekend storms

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  • Mike Donner of Arlington Heights clears out some of the flood damage to his basement.

       Mike Donner of Arlington Heights clears out some of the flood damage to his basement.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Mike Donner, right, and his son Thomas, continue to cleanup flood damage to their home in Arlington Heights. They had 8 ft. of water in their basement, reaching the ceiling.

       Mike Donner, right, and his son Thomas, continue to cleanup flood damage to their home in Arlington Heights. They had 8 ft. of water in their basement, reaching the ceiling.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Mike Donner of Arlington Heights contemplates the flood damage to his basement.

       Mike Donner of Arlington Heights contemplates the flood damage to his basement.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 

The floodwater was gone Monday, so Janet and Mike Donner got down to the real work -- gutting the interior of their fully finished, 2,000-square-foot basement.

At the height of Saturday's early-morning storm, a raging river roared down Phelps Avenue in Arlington Heights and into the Donners' yard. The force of the water smashed three windows, and within 20 minutes, the family's basement was submerged under 8 feet of water.

By the time the family pumped the last of the water out 24 hours later, everything in the basement was lost -- a boiler, furnace, water heater, pool table, card table, sofa, TV, treadmill, sink, cabinet, mirrors and a computer.

"There's nothing left," Janet Donner said, estimating her family lost $80,000 worth of belongings. "It's total devastation. Not only did we lose our whole basement, I've got to pay $15,000 to clean it up. We're going to be left with two-by-fours and a concrete floor."

The Donners caught one break -- sewage didn't back up in their basement. Had it, they'd be running the risk of getting sick, not just sick at heart.

Many residents in the suburbs are facing that today -- belongings soaked not just with water, but sewage and mold creeping up the drywall.

Lattice Porter-Thomas, environmental quality manager with the Cook County Department of Public Health, said homeowners should be careful to protect themselves.

"Because a lot of this is sewer water, they should wear protective clothing, gloves, boots; cover their arms and legs as much as possible; protect any broken skin," Porter-Thomas said Monday.

And, she said, drag ruined things out of the house as quickly as possible.

It's a good idea to contact professionals for advice, said Peter Duncanson, director of training and technical support for ServiceMaster Cleaners.

"This is not a do-it-yourself project," Duncanson said. "Restoration depends on the rate that you can remove the water and, if you do it improperly, you can damage the foundation. There are many electrical, biological and chemical hazards with any flood. People should always be careful."

Residents can take steps to reduce the extent of the damage.

"Turn down the A/C to make it as cool as possible," said Scott Weitzman, owner of Restruction General Contractors in Northbrook. "Remember to keep circulating air throughout the room."

Weitzman, who has been getting more than 150 calls a day, said the initial few days after a storm are crucial.

"After 72 hours, mold and mildew begin to form," he said. "If this happens, people should be wearing masks and possibly even leaving the house."

Mold is a major health risk posed by flood damage, Porter-Thomas agreed. It causes respiratory problems, exacerbating allergies and asthma. It also causes skin irritation and makes eyes burn, water and itch, often mimicking flu-like symptoms.

"All mold is either toxic or allergenic," she said. "None of it is good."

However, don't overdo the bleach.

While it's important to sanitize surfaces, people tend to overuse chemicals such as bleach while cleaning up after sewage seepage, Porter-Thomas said.

"It's best to wipe things down with just a mild detergent and water solution," she said. "For surfaces like floors, tables, you want to use a bleach and water solution.

"But bleach is toxic," she said. Ventilate as much as possible and use no more than a cap full of bleach for a gallon of water.

In cases of severe water damage, anything that cannot be completely dried within two days -- be it carpet, furniture made of fabric, or equipment -- should be tossed, Porter-Thomas said.

"If it's something they really think it's worth to salvage, they can contact dry cleaners or professionals," she said.

Generally, carpeting, upholstery and drywall need to be disposed of, while wood, concrete and tile can be saved and electronics may be dried.

"Everything should be removed, and concrete floors should be powerwashed to kill the bacteria," said Elvis Smajlovic, owner of Techniclean in Lakemoor.

Flood-damaged materials should be bagged, and residents should contact their communities about organizing pickup.

For health-related questions, call Porter-Thomas at (708) 974-7117 or visit www.cookcountypublichealth.org.

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