Coping With Catastrophe
Illustration: Randall Enos
Suppose you come home from a night out on the town and are greeted by several inches of water from an overflowing washing machine. Or you find the door ajar and your jewelry missing. These are just two unwelcome scenarios millions of homeowners face each year, and it's crucial to know how to react to them. Although you won't be able to reverse what has happened, quick action can minimize the hassle and expense of cleanup. And if a burglar is still in the house, the right steps could help you avoid a dangerous encounter. We spoke with experts who restore homes after catastrophes and safeguard them from thieves. On the following pages, you'll get their advice for dealing with five household disasters. After a Fire Once the blaze is out and the firefighters have left, you'll have to decide quickly whether or not you can do the cleanup work yourself. If the damage appears extensive, leave everything as is. Then call your insurance agent immediately so the damage can be documented and professionally repaired. But if the fire was limited to one room and damage is minimal, you can probably proceed on your own. Use a shop vacuum to remove the dry soot and any chemical residue left from fire extinguishers. If possible, open windows and doors so fresh air can circulate through the house and dissipate the smell of smoke. Use a room deodorizer to mask the smell until it's gone. Clothing, carpets, and other furnishings might require professional cleaning to eliminate the smoke odor. Thanks to their extra-soft surface, dry-cleaning sponges are ideal for removing loose soot particles from latex paint, blown ceilings, and acoustic tiles. They're available through cleaning- and paint-supply outlets for about $5. Do not use household cleaners on these surfaces. The sponge should be used dry. Wipe the ceiling first, since debris tends to drop downward. Then work on the walls, moving from top to bottom using straight, parallel strokes that overlap a bit. When the surface of the sponge becomes sooty, simply skim it off with a knife to give the sponge a new cleaning surface. Dry-cleaning sponges aren't recommended for oil-based paint, acrylic paint, or vinyl wallpaper, or for removing the greasy soot sometimes left by kitchen fires. Instead, use a regular sponge and pine-scented cleaner. Be sure to remove all the soot. The more you get rid of, the faster the smoke smell it contains will dissipate. Even if the damage is heavy and you have filed a claim with your insurance company, you'll still have a mess on your hands. Fortunately, there are services that specialize in postfire cleanup work. Check the yellow pages, under "Fire & Water Damage Restoration." You can also contact several organizations that provide references. Professionals are especially skilled at eliminating the smoky odor that lingers after a fire. Their cleanup arsenal includes ozone generators and special deodorizing chemicals unavailable to consumers. After a serious fire, you might have to move out of the house during cleanup and repairs. If so, be sure to board up broken windows and other holes. Remove any valuables you can. And consider hiring a security service to keep an eye on your home.
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