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posted: 4/18/2013 5:07 PM

What you should know when your basement floods

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Your basement is full of water that not only ruined your carpet but is polluted with harmful bacteria. What's your next move?

Put safety first. There's always the danger of electrocution when water mixes with outlets and appliances.

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"Stay out until the water recedes. If you have to salvage some valuables, do it carefully," said Kathy Marr, owner of ServePro of Lombard\Addison.

But it's not just the electricity that's dangerous. "A lot of what we're seeing today is actual sewer backups," she said. "You need to have boots and gloves."

That's for protection from bacteria. Stormwater in flooded basements often mixes with a home's sewer system and becomes contaminated. Even if it doesn't mix, the water can carry hazards from the environment into the home, says Larry Mackey, deputy director of Population Health Services for the Lake County Health Department.

Back to the damage: A squishy rug surrounded by thirsty drywall can be daunting. Depending on the severity of the damage, homeowners may manage the cleanup without help from the pros. Others opt for a cleaning service.

On Thursday, many panicked suburban residents found that long waits on the phone were the norm. "Get on a list," Marr said. "Get on everybody's." By early afternoon, Marr had 174 on hers, and she knew it would take some time to help all those customers.

"We can't even start today because we're getting more rain," she said. "My list is getting longer."

Once the water recedes -- a couple of inches per hour after storm sewers clear, Marr says -- carpeting needs to be removed. But should it be salvaged?

No, Marr advises. Some homeowners try tossing the pad but drying the carpet, but that's rarely a good idea. "I wouldn't do it at my own house," she said. "If it's a clean water supply, like a broken pipe, then yes. But stormwater is not real clean, and the bacteria can stay even after it's dried."

Walls can be dried out in some cases, but even just a couple inches of water can wick 2 feet up inside the drywall. That's why most professionals will do a "dry cut" at 24 inches from the floor, just to be sure mold won't begin to grow.

Walls are where mold most commonly spreads after a flood, Marr said, adding that it starts within 36 to 48 hours. She cautions homeowners to get a professional opinion. "It might feel dry on the surface, and all of a sudden there's mold growing," she said. Also, any insulation that gets soaked should be replaced.

The health department recommends scrubbing all surfaces touched by flood water with a solution of one-quarter cup of household bleach to a gallon of water. Clothing and bedding should be machine washed.

Suburban homeowners with a private well should make sure their well casing is not underwater. "If it is, assume it's contaminated, Mackey said. When it recedes, test the water, then get the well disinfected. Call your county health officials for more information.

Finally, beware of scams. Hire only contractors who are licensed and insured, and don't be afraid to ask them, says Tom Joyce, vice president of communication for the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois. Or, check out a business at www.bbb.org. "It takes only a couple of minutes," he said.

Joyce said to be particularly wary of people who come door-to-door and offer to do work for cash. "Don't rush into anything," he said. "People take your money and you never see them again."

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