Returning Home after a Natural Disaster

There is so much to do when you first return home after a disaster, it can be overwhelming. But if you make a plan, work carefully, and keep yourself safe and healthy, you will make progress. Here are some tips about getting started, along with some possible problems to watch out for.

Before You Start

Be sure your home is safe enough for you to work in before you get started.

  • Do not enter a damaged building until it has been certified as safe by a building inspector. Leave immediately if you hear or feel the building shifting.
  • If you smell gas, notify emergency authorities immediately and do not return home until you are told it is safe.
  • If electrical circuits and equipment have gotten wet, turn off the power and get an electrical inspection before you turn the power back on.
  • Know that even checking out the damage can be hot, heavy work and unexpected hazards can exist. Go with a partner who can help. Don't go in if you have asthma or allergies or another lung disease.
  • Check out information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about water supply and other issues in returning home.

Taking Care of Your House

Before you get started removing hazardous materials and cleaning up mold, be sure to watch out for carbon monoxide poisoning!

Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas produced by burning fuel. It can cause sudden illness and death if you breathe much of it, so take steps to keep it out of your home.

  • Never use generators, power washers, grills, camp stoves or other gasoline, propane or charcoal-burning equipment indoors.
  • Don't heat your house with a gas oven.
  • If your carbon monoxide detector sounds, leave the house immediately and call 911.
  • Watch for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. If you or others in your house feel dizzy, lightheaded, or nauseated, get out of the house and seek medical help immediately!

Remove Hazardous Materials

Chemicals and other dangerous materials may have come into your house or yard during the storm. You may also have to dispose of household chemicals that have been damaged. 

  • Call the National Response Center 1-800-424-8802 (24 hours a day every day) or 202-267-2675
  • Find information about handling debris from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 
  • Contact local authorities to inspect or remove chemical drums, propane tanks or other major problems with dangerous materials.
  • Wear protective clothing and a NIOSH-certified N95 face mask to protect your skin and lungs if you are handling materials yourself. However, N95 masks do not protect against gases and do not protect adults with facial hair or children.
  • Don't burn debris or waste. Remove it to a designated disposal area.

Clean Up Mold

Mold is always present in buildings that have been water damaged. It can make people sick, especially people who already have breathing problems. Mold can be hard to get rid of, so you need to act promptly and thoroughly.

  • Dry out the building as quickly as possible. Open doors and windows.
  • If water has been in the building longer than 24 to 48 hours or the mold is larger than 10 sq.ft, get professional help. Don't try to tackle it alone.
  • Protect yourself and your family. Wear gloves, goggles and a NIOSH-certified N95 face mask to protect your eyes and throat while working on mold. Toss mold damaged materials in a plastic bag to discard.
  • When in doubt, toss it out! Remove everything that has been soaked by water, including clothing, papers, furnishings, carpet, ceiling tiles, and wallboard. Anything that cannot be cleaned and dried must be discarded.
  • Use soap and water to scrub mold off hard surfaces, like tile and concrete. Do not use bleach to clean up.
  • Be careful of hidden mold from windblown rain, especially if you have vinyl wallpaper or large mirrors on an outside wall. It can be in the wall behind.

Be Aware of Breathing Problems

It is not unusual after a natural disaster for people to develop lung problems, even if they have never had them before. Don't wait to get medical help if you start having breathing problems. Keep an eye on family members too, especially children and seniors. Some warning signs are:

  • Coughing, especially coughing at night
  • Wheezing or feeling short of breath
  • Chest tightness or pain

CRITICAL SIGNS: Get emergency medical help if fingernails or lips are turning blue or if there is severe chest pain. Both could be life-threatening.

Don't Be Fooled

People will try to sell you equipment and services as a way to clean up your home. Here are some to watch out for:

  • Don't use machines that generate ozone indoors. Ozone will not remove mold, but it can harm your health.
  • Avoid contractors who offer to heat your house and "blow out the mold" with fans. They'll just spread it everywhere.

For more information on disaster recovery, please contact our Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA.

Page last updated: March 19, 2024

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