Coping With Catastrophe

From burglaries to fires to trees falling on your house, how to handle five common household nightmares.

Coping With Catastrophe
Illustration by Randall Enos
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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.
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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what to do after a fire
Illustration by Randall Enos
After a Burglary

The shock of coming home and discovering you've been robbed can blind you to the fact that you could be in danger. "The thief might still be inside your home, armed and dangerous," says Morton Feldman, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Chiefs of Police. "The best policy is to back right out of there, go to a neighbor's home and call 911." There are other ways you can protect your family after a break-in and help prevent another one. The right steps will also boost the odds that the police will nab the thieves and recover all or some of your valuables. Never use your own phone to call the police. Thieves sometimes make phone calls from the house they rob, leaving prints on the receiver and a traceable redial number. Burglars have even been known to watch television, take naps, and raid the refrigerator. So don't move or touch anything until the police arrive. After the police secure your property, you'll be asked to provide a list of what's missing and, if possible, receipts. You'll also need that list for your insurer when you file your claim. Once the police determine the point of entry, quickly repair any damage and beef up security at these locations. Then give your entire home a thorough security check and make any necessary changes now. According to Feldman, most robberies are crimes of opportunity. Protect your home by installing 1-inch-long dead bolts that meet ANSI Grade 2 standards on all entry doors. Supplement the sash locks on your windows with locks that must be opened with a key. Second-story windows should also be secured. And be sure to eliminate branches or trellises that give access to second-story entry points.
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After a Plumbing Leak

Obviously, you'll want to begin by turning off the water in the supply line that feeds the leaking pipe or fixture. But what if the point of the leak is hidden, or there's no valve in the branch line? Then you'll have to shut off water to the entire house. In cold climates, the main shutoff valve is usually in the basement or utility room, close by the wall where the service pipe enters. In climates where there's no danger of freezing, the shutoff might be outdoors. On private well systems, look for the valve on the supply line coming out of the pressurized storage tank. If the shutoff valve won't close, call your local city water authority immediately so water can be turned off at the main. If you have a pumped well system, shut off electricity to the pump and call a plumber or well technician. If the water has risen above electrical cords or outlets, it might be carrying electrical current. Stay away from it until you shut off electricity to the circuits affected. If you can't reach the breaker or fuse panel safely, have the power company shut off the electricity to your home. Once you stop the leak, move furniture and begin rescuing rugs and other valuables. If the water damage is serious, get your insurance agent involved right away and consider hiring a service that specializes in flood damage. If the damage is minor, follow these steps: Use a mop or a wet-dry vac to clean up the water. If you opt for a vacuum, use a long hose and nozzle, keeping the machine and its cord away from the water to avoid a shock. Also use an outlet or extension cord that's protected with a ground-fault circuit interrupter. If the water is really deep, you might want to use an electric sump pump or gasoline-powered trash pump. If you use a gas-powered pump, set it outside and run the intake hose in through a window or door to avoid fumes. If sewage or gray water has leaked, stop using any toilets, baths, sinks, or appliances that drain into that line. And avoid any contact with spilled sewage. Wear rubber gloves and boots. When cleanup is done, thoroughly clean and disinfect the area and your tools with a store-bought disinfectant or a homemade solution of 1 part chlorine bleach to 9 parts water. If needed, apply a deodorizer, such as Exod or Outright. Once the water is gone, hang wet throw rugs and other movable items outside over a clothesline or sawhorse so they can air out without mildewing. Open windows and doors to let fresh air into the area that's wet. Run window, ceiling, and floor fans to increase air circulation. If you have a dehumidifier or air conditioner, use it to dry out and cool the area. This helps prevent mold, mildew, and fungus from growing. If water has seeped into wall cavities, remove the wallboard or paneling to a point well above the water line. This allows wet insulation to be removed and the cavities between wall studs to dry. Also remove any resilient flooring that water has penetrated so the wood subfloor can dry. Otherwise, trapped water can warp the subfloor as well as cause mildew. Carpeting and furniture that have been deeply soaked will probably have to be thrown away, especially if they've been contaminated with sewage.
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During a Power Outage

Fortunately, most blackouts last just long enough for you to enjoy a candlelight dinner. But in the wake of a violent storm or blizzard, it could be several days before the local utility gets power up and running again. Because there's no way of knowing how long the wait will be, assume the worst and prepare for a prolonged outage. Turn off most of the electrical devices that were running before the outage occurred. This makes it easier for power to be restored to the grid. If you have water pressure, fill containers for drinking and bathing. Fill the bathtub, too; you'll want plenty of water on hand if widespread power outages lead to a disruption in water service. If you have a private well system, save the water in the pressurized tank for drinking only — you won't be able to draw additional water until power is restored. If it's winter and your main source of heat is out, fire up the wood stove or fireplace if you have one. Never use a gas oven, unvented kerosene heater, or outdoor cooker for emergency heat. All three create toxic fumes. If you need to seek shelter elsewhere during cold weather, keep a steady trickle of water flowing from each faucet to keep the pipes from freezing. Open refrigerator and freezer doors only when necessary. Frozen food will stay below 40°F for up to three days, even in summer, if the door stays shut. If you use a generator for power, follow the manufacturer's instructions to avoid overloading the generator. Be sure extension cords are rated to handle the amperage draw of the tool or appliance you're powering. The thicker the cord and the lower its gauge rating, the better. If the generator is connected directly to the house wiring, disconnect your house from the grid by turning off the main breaker or removing the main fuse. By disconnecting your home, you protect utility workers doing repairs from being shocked by power from your generator.
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After a Tree Falls

A raging storm has caused a tree limb to fall on your roof. Your first impulse is to climb up and check out the damage. But before you get the ladder, consider this: If something is heavy enough to damage asphalt and wood, think of what it can do to you. Exercise good judgment when deciding whether or not to call in a professional. If you aren't used to working from a ladder or going up on a roof, opt for the pro. Also call one in if your roof is steeply pitched. (Stay off the roof if the pitch is more than 4:12.) Otherwise, to remove the fallen limb safely, follow these tips: Inspect the underside of the roof from the attic. If the plywood sheathing or rafters are damaged, call your insurance agent — and a pro. If water is leaking in, lay boards across the ceiling joists to create a steady platform. Then place buckets, pans, or plastic sheeting to catch the leak. If the sheathing and rafters are sound and the roof is dry, put on your nonskid shoes and go up on the roof. Always work above the fallen limb; if it shifts or rolls you'll be out of the way. And be sure the ground below you is clear. Use long-handled pruning shears to cut off small branches. Then cut the main limb away in manageable chunks with a bow saw. Remember, it's the weight and rocking action of the saw, rather than its pressure, that do the work. Tread lightly and work carefully to avoid causing any further damage. Don't use a chain saw while on the ladder or roof. Chain saws should never be used where footing isn't firm and slip-free.

Once the limb is removed, inspect the shingles for damage. If you find any, keep water out with a temporary patch. That's what some homeowners in Florida did when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992; their efforts minimized water damage from the torrential rains that followed. To make a patch, cut a piece of aluminum flashing large enough to cover the damaged area and slip it up under the shingle course above. If roofing nails are in your way, remove them with a slotted pry bar or cut them off with a hacksaw blade. Keep the patch from slipping out by applying asphalt roofing cement to the area of the patch that slips beneath the undamaged shingles. Plastic sheeting can also make an effective temporary patch — the thicker the better — though it must be secured on all four sides. The best way to hold the plastic in place is to run a continuous bead of asphalt roofing cement around the area to be patched, then press the sheet into place. Or, secure the sheeting by nailing furring strips around the edges, but only as a last resort, because driving in the nails means more holes in the roof.
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Free Advice and Insurance Information After a disaster, even if it's a relatively minor one, it's nice to know that expert advice is just a phone call away. Here are some sources to contact:
  • The Institute of Inspection, Cleaning & Restoration Certification in Vancouver, Washington, maintains a nationwide list of professionals who specialize in carpet and upholstery cleaning, water-damage restoration, fire and smoke restoration, and odor control. You can call the organization to get the names of certified professionals in your area. The Institute of Inspection, Cleaning & Restoration Certification
    2715 E. Mill Plain Blvd.
    Vancouver, WA 98661
    800-835-4624. The Insurance Information Institute, an industry trade group, offers the free booklet, "Settling Insurance Claims After a Disaster." For a copy, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: The Insurance Information Institute
    Publications Service Center
    110 William St.
    New York, NY 10038
    212-669-9200
  • The National Crime Prevention Council, a clearinghouse for information on home security, offers the free brochures, "Lock Your Windows and Doors" and "Home Security: Invest In It Now." You can contact the council at: 1700 K St. NW
    Washington, D.C. 20006-3817
    202-466-6272
    http://www.weprevent.org
    The Insurance Connection If your home emergency looks like it will get expensive, call your insurance agent right away and file a timely claim. For lesser emergencies — especially those that won't exceed the deductible on your homeowner's insurance — you might still want to contact your agent for some advice. But hold off on filing a claim. "It isn't smart to file a home insurance claim for every little thing that happens," advises Loretta Worters, director of public relations for The Insurance Information Institute in New York City. "Home insurance is really there for a catastrophe. When you file a lot of little claims, year after year, it will drive your rate up and might even lead to the policy not being renewed." Some other tips to remember: Although your first impulse after a fire or flood might be to throw away charred or water-damaged items, keep them in case the insurance adjuster wants material evidence of the items you are claiming as a loss. Take a complete inventory of your losses and photograph or videotape the site before you make any temporary or permanent repairs. Keep all receipts. If you must find temporary housing, keep track of your expenses; they might be covered by your policy. And be sure to check with your tax adviser or accountant to see if you can claim a personal casualty loss on your federal income tax.
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