How to prepare, react and rise above flood and water damage.
Flood and water damage can cause immense damage to homes and business. Together they are some of the most frequent and costly hazards affecting people and economies around the world, including the US.
Types of Floods
Any flood where water flows over or through normally dry land is categorized as an overland flood. Causes include:
- Existing drainage infrastructure that is overwhelmed by severe weather
- High levels of precipitation over several days
- Heavy rainfall over a short period of time
- Rapid snowmelt
- Water levels in a river or stream that exceed its capacity
- Dam failure
Overland flooding can cause immense damage to homes and business. It is one of the most frequent and costly hazards affecting people and economies around the world. The one-two punch of 1999’s Hurricane Floyd and Tropical Storm Dennis resulted in severe flooding over a wide swath of the Mid-Atlantic region. The flooding – not the storms themselves – caused the lion’s share of the billions of dollars in damage that resulted from those storms.
The inundation of low-lying areas, whether ocean coastline or lake shoreline, that would normally be dry land is categorized as coastal flooding. High tides, heavy rainfall, intense onshore winds and storm surge, or any combination of these, can cause unusually high water levels that are capable of damaging property and endangering life. Low-lying regions in places such as coastal Louisiana; Charleston, South Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia, see frequent coastal flooding events, often multiple times per year.
Heavy rainfall and overland flooding that occur in densely populated areas can easily overwhelm drainage infrastructure. This is categorized as an urban flood. Large, highly concentrated areas of impermeable materials such as steel, concrete, pavement, etc., give the water nowhere to go, leading to high levels of water runoff. Damage from drain and sewer backups, flooding of businesses and multi-unit residences, and disabled roadways and public transportation make urban flooding an incredibly costly event.
Typically caused by sudden, heavy rainfall, hurricanes or dam failure, a flash flood can be incredibly dangerous. This type of flood leaves fewer than six hours – and in some cases, mere minutes – between rainfall and the onset of flooding. Flash floods often produce fast-moving water that may carry debris, building materials, cars, etc.
Regions Prone to Flood
Regions across much of the continental U.S. are prone to flooding, from the Eastern Seaboard west as far as the Rockies, in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest — the list is more inclusive than exclusive. As the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reminds us: “There is no such thing as a ‘no-risk zone,’ but some areas have a lower or moderate risk.”
As weather patterns become less predictable, we are seeing outlier events much more frequently — events that can be even more devastating for those who may be unprepared for and inexperienced in coping with this type of damage.
Vulnerable Times of Year
Our specialists in the field note that these days, there’s no telling when floodwater may hit. Hurricane season – June through November – is a common time of year to expect (and be prepared for) overland and flash flooding. This is compounded in the summer by seasonal rainfall across many regions. But as more sporadic weather patterns and severe events diminish our ability to project outcomes, it is becoming ever more important to prepare for these events, even in times and places where we’ve never seen them before.
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Water Damage vs. Flood
Not all water damage is flood damage. Water seeping into a basement; leaking windows, vents, doors and roofs; gutters or downspouts that are overwhelmed; a breached water line or activated sprinkler system; drain and sewer backups; major appliance failure; and condensation from cooling systems – ALL of these are causes of water damage may occur without relation to a flood.
To the home or business owner, distinguishing flood damage from water damage may seem to matter very little. Whatever the cause, a disabled commercial building or high-rise building is a loss of revenue, and an uninhabitable house is a major disruption. But exactly how property damage and loss occurred – and what you may or may not have done to prevent it — is of great importance to insurers. And it may be for you too, should your insurer find you at fault for “failure to maintain.”
Signs of Water Damage
Here are some notable indicators of water damage:
- Dark or wet spots (no matter how small!)
- Swollen baseboards
- Bubbling paint
- Peeling wallpaper
- Soft drywall
- Warped ceiling tiles
- An unusually high water bill or sudden loss of water pressure
Low-level, repetitive water exposure is a common contributor to long-term damage we often see in houses and workplaces – think home entryways that see a lot of tracked snow in winter or the bathroom in a commercial building that sees a lot of water splashes around the sink.
No matter the size or source of early water damage, it is imperative to act at the first sign of a problem. Investigate immediately and address the source of the problem expeditiously. Engage a professional to help you determine the true extent of the damage and perform repairs as soon as possible. Deferring this maintenance will no doubt cost you much more down the line.
On the subject of non-flood water damage, there is one topic worth mentioning on its own: pipe leaks and bursts. Of all the types of water damage a home or business may sustain, pipe bursts can be the most damaging. Why? A burst 1-inch water supply pipe can pump out hundreds of gallons of water per minute into your home or business.
What causes pipes to burst? Except in very old homes – ‘legacy’ homes, as we call them – it is exceedingly rare to see pipe corrosion as the primary contributor. In colder regions, freezing temperatures are a frequent cause. In other instances, mechanical failure, improper installation, or faulty materials are contributing factors. In any of these instances, a specialist can share knowledge, experience and an educated opinion on the source of the failure and can offer guidance on engaging insurance. We’ll discuss mitigation steps for this and other water crises in detail below.
Categorizing Water Damage
Category 1: Clean water
Sources: Treated water supply lines, appliance malfunction, sink overflow
Level of contamination: Low
Category 1 water is the easiest to manage. Be sure to address any damage within 24-48 hours to reduce the likelihood of potentially hazardous microbial growth.
Category 2: Gray Water
Sources: Storm drain backups, rainwater infiltration, sprinkler systems, untreated HVAC/cooling water, some surface water
Level of contamination: Slight to severe
Category 2 water may pose an elevated health risk to those dealing with cleanup. It may appear cloudy or carry an unpleasant odor. Loss of some property and materials is likely.
Category 3: Black water/Blackwater
Source: Sewer backflow, ALL floodwater (from rivers, ponds, streams, the ocean)
Level of contamination: High
Category 3 water is very likely to carry infectious viruses and bacteria, parasites, and toxic and allergenic materials. Any floodwater from any source that passes over the ground is considered contaminated. This type of water may be identified by a cloudy appearance, the presence of debris and a strong odor. Cleanup and restoration efforts after Category 3 water damage can be very difficult and will require extreme care regarding contaminants. Most damaged materials will be unsalvageable.
A water loss is always an unexpected event. And with such a broad range of potential contributors to this type of damage, it can be daunting to try to cover all bases when it comes to preparation. The single most important factor in how quickly and smoothly a home or business can recover from a water loss is whether a contingency plan is in place before the event is at the doorstep.
Some things to consider when building a response plan for a home or workplace:
Pre-crisis action items:
- Understand your insurance policy. Does it include a flood rider? Most policies need this to be specifically added by the policy holder. If it does, know your coverage. Oftentimes, flood and water damage are not a “total restore” under the policy, meaning that the loss may be covered only up to a percentage. If this is the case, it may be worth speaking with your provider about extending your coverage.
- Regularly inspect the property and identify any areas in need of attention. Maintain roofing, doors, windows and their casings, and HVAC exhaust vents. Regularly clear gutters, downspouts and drain catches of debris. These areas are the most common contributors to persistent, non-catastrophic water damage. Perform any necessary repairs as soon as possible. Deferred maintenance is far and away the leading contributor to non-flood-related water damage.
- If your basement has a sump pump, be sure to have the pump inspected and serviced regularly. Repair and replace as needed.
- Ensure that the building’s grading and landscaping are engineered to draw water away from the structure. Consider adding drain catches, downspout extensions and other methods of redirecting heavy rainfall.
- Know where the water shutoff valve is.
- Consider partnering with a company specializing in loss mitigation and recovery. Do this before an event is expected. This gives the specialists an opportunity to familiarize themselves with your team, your facility and any particular considerations your home or business may require. We often hear that the greatest benefit to working with First Onsite is the Emergency Response Plan (ERP). The ERP is an individualized, actionable plan that we build with each client to ensure a seamless, rapid response to catastrophe.
Immediate crisis preparation steps:
- Make every possible effort to avoid a loss, and document your efforts. Lay sandbags, move precious or valuable items to the highest floor or location possible, etc.
- In a commercial setting, communicate with the property management team regarding their efforts. Having this documented in writing is a best practice for help in any possible claims processes later.
- Move as much sensitive equipment and technology as time will allow. Document these efforts with photos, video and itemized lists.
- If the home or business is situated in an area where catastrophic flooding events commonly occur, prepare yourself/the facility with a backup power source and emergency essentials (a first aid kit, flashlights, emergency radio, battery-operated charger, water, food, etc.).
- Familiarize yourself/your facilities teams with the proper method of disposal for contaminated water. Contact your local hazardous waste program about this BEFORE an emergency arises. Improper disposal can come with legal ramification.
- Partnering with a loss mitigation and restoration team can take care of many of these steps to protect your property, leaving you to handle what’s most important: people.
Remember: It will always be costlier to repair water damage than prevent it. The cost to hire a maintenance professional to assess and service your property will be much cheaper to absorb than the potential expense of damage due to deferred maintenance.
In the event of water damage or flood, response is even more important than preparation. How quickly after an incident do you need to react? As soon as is safely possible, ideally, within 24-48 hours.
In both commercial and residential settings, the first priority is safety.
- Until the category of water (see above) is known, keep people and pets away from the affected area. Water entering a building from outside has contaminants in it and must be handled carefully. Anyone coming in contact with the floodwater should wear personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Turn off electrical breakers BEFORE coming in contact with the floodwater/standing water/bound water. If they cannot be reached without walking through water, contact a professional.
- Do not use any heating systems or appliances.
Once it is safe to enter the affected space:
- For internal leaks, turn off the water valve at the source. If dealing with floodwater, try to stem or redirect the flow of water coming into the building.
- Document, document, document. Photos, video, and detailed, itemized lists are your best allies should you need to file an insurance claim. Also document any efforts at loss prevention that you have employed. A carrier may decline coverage if no effort to prevent an anticipated flood loss had been made.
- Contact your insurance provider to notify them ahead of a potential catastrophic event. Simply notifying the provider does not mean that you will need to start a claim. Failure to notify your insurer at the first sign of damage can allow them to deny a future claim. Upon notice, they may elect to send their own representative to inspect the damage. Document when the provider expects this person to arrive and the date when he or she does arrive.
- When dealing with Category 2 or 3 (contaminated) water, it is imperative to seal off the affected area in order to limit the spread of contaminants. Some situations may require the disabling climate and ventilation systems to isolate airborne contamination. In other instances, the HVAC/ventilation system may aid in the drying process. A disaster mitigation specialist can help identify best practices for your situation.
- If this stage is improperly handled, there is a very real possibility that damage can spread and mold can grow, exponentially increasing your recovery timeline and costs. Depending on various factors (climate, ventilation, the condition of the structure, etc.), even clean water in a residential setting can begin producing mold within a few days.
- Remove any delicate, valuable or moisture-sensitive items that may have been damaged. Document each item and detail its damage.
- If possible, move any affected furniture out of the affected area. If this isn’t an option, raise it out of any standing water with plastic blocks or bowls. Document each item and detail its damage.
The smartest move you can make when facing any amount of water or flood damage is to call a disaster restoration specialist. The knowledge, tools, and documentation processes they can offer will far outpace any efforts you or your facilities teams could employ on your own. Many of these professional teams will also handle communication with insurance, making your recovery effort run smoothly and efficiently.
Once the immediate reaction steps are handled, you’ll be left with a mess to clean up. Whatever the size of the mess, a water loss recovery effort is delicate process. Safety must always be the first priority.
- Remove any standing water as quickly as possible. Depending on the amount and category of water you are handling, this may require specialized pumps, a wet vac and/or mopping. Materials that have come into contact with Category 2 or 3 water will require extensive cleaning, sanitization and drying. Testing for hazardous materials (lead, asbestos, etc.) may also be necessary. These processes are best handled by a professional team.
- Look for signs of bound water – water suspended in the ceiling or wall – and release it by cutting holes for drainage. Any wallpaper or wall coverings must be removed to allow the area to fully dry. A “flood cut” (or removal of a portion of drywall – usually the bottom few feet) may be necessary to completely dry any materials housed behind it.
- Begin the dehumidification process. Water in the air can be an irritant and must be properly balanced. Air movement, light, and dehumidification are your biggest allies in the drying process.
- Mold is now the chief concern. In some cases (but not all!), air conditioning and open windows can be of help. While warm air can support faster evaporation and more effective drying, it can also encourage microbial growth. Cool air has a much slower rate of microbial growth, but is less effective at drying and could actually add to the problem by increasing levels of condensation. Mold can begin to grow in just 48 hours. Improperly handled, it can cause sickness or even death. Be sure you are taking the necessary steps to keep your home or workplace safe. A professional will be able to assess a particular situation and identify the proper response.
- Find areas of the building that are not easily accessible to dry. Make sure that every area affected, and every type of material affected is known – each will have its own drying time.
- Document newly discovered damage as it is found. Often times an insurance adjuster/representative will not arrive onsite for 7-10 days, well after restoration efforts have begun. It is important to have the full extent of the damage documented for your records.
- Do not begin repair or restoration efforts until all areas are completely dry. Trapped moisture will very likely lead to greater problems down the line – hazardous conditions, business downtime, or an impact to the resale value of the property or home. A professional team will have specialized tools to handle this – hygrometers, moisture meters, infrared cameras, and – most helpful of all – a wealth of experience.
In almost every situation, we recommend working with a professional team. Having the job done correctly from day one saves time, confusion and, ultimately, expense. First Onsite can handle all the necessary documentation, mitigation, and recovery efforts to return your property to its pre-loss condition as quickly as possible. Our managers communicate completely, giving you an idea of what to expect, a timeline, an estimate, and a projected deadline. As the recovery process progresses, our clients can expect regular communication with a professional, experienced, knowledgeable and uniformed staff.
Embarking on the repair and restoration process can be overwhelming. Where to begin? What can be salvaged? Should different materials be used in the rebuild to mitigate future damage if I should suffer a repeat loss? An industry professional equipped with tools, knowledge and manpower can ensure that your restoration process runs smoothly and efficiently – answering your questions, guiding you through the process, and getting you back to work or back in your home as quickly as possible.
To give you an idea of what to expect when embarking on a water restoration effort, here we’ve compiled some quick tips on salvageability and the repair process by area of concern:
When trying to salvage and repair flooring, the necessary first step is to identify the extent of the damage. Has water reached the baseboards? The subfloor? If these are wet, swollen or warped, they will need to be completely dried and, in some cases, replaced.
- Carpet – In almost all cases, carpet padding will need to be replaced. Good quality carpet in good condition may be salvageable in instances of Category 1 (clean) water damage. It must always be replaced after exposure to Category 2 (contaminated) water.
- Hardwood & engineered wood – These materials will swell after contact with water and will take a long time to dry. They may be able to be sanded and refinished to be reused.
- Ceramic tile – Tile is extremely resistant to water damage. If the water should travel underneath the tile to the subfloor, the tile would need to be pulled up to fully dry the underlying area.
- Laminate – Laminate flooring is ruined if it absorbs any substantial amount of water and almost always needs to be replaced.
- Vinyl sheeting – This material is quite resistant to water damage and is the least likely to need replacing. Should water get trapped between the sheeting and the subfloor, the vinyl would need to be pulled up to adequately dry.
Structurally compromised drywall will need to be replaced. But if dealt with immediately, wet drywall can often be salvaged. A moisture meter can aid in measuring the extent of the damage. Cutting small, patchable weep holes at regular intervals will help to release any bound water and ventilate the inner wall. If the materials behind the wall (insulation, wooden studs, wiring, etc.) are wet, a “flood cut” or removal of a portion of drywall, may be necessary.
Bound water – or water trapped in a ceiling or wall after an event – must be released. Cut weep holes in the ceiling where there are signs of sagging or delamination to let this water escape and to better ventilate the area. Replace any ceiling tiles with visible damage (discoloration, swelling, warping, etc.). Be sure to allow the affected area to dry completely before patching and restoring.
As soon as a problem becomes apparent, the best move is to engage a professional to identify the extent of the damage and outline next steps. Basement repair is never simple or cheap. Even temporary solutions, such as epoxy-based fillers for cracks in the foundation or additional sump pumps and dehumidifiers, will always need to be re-addressed down the line. Working with an experienced, knowledgeable professional ensures the best possible outcome for your unique situation.
High-Rise Building Repair
Repairing after a flood or water damage event in a high-rise building can be an intricate puzzle. The damage is typically excessive – sprinkler systems and water supply breaches can put out incredible amounts of water in very short periods of time. This water doesn’t always move directly downwards. Water may move sideways above a ceiling across several units, then down an elevator shaft and seep sideways onto a different floor. For commercial or residential high-rise buildings, we always recommend engaging a professional to aid in tracking the damage.
Furniture, Office Furniture & Technology Repair
Furniture and technology damage is often top of mind for those who have suffered a water loss, and with good reason: Judgments about the salvageability of these items are among the first that must be made. Damage to furniture from Category 1 (clean) water is often able to be remedied. The items may be dried, and judgments made on a case-by-case basis. Any soft goods or upholstered items that have come into contact with Category 2 or 3 (contaminated) water will likely need to be replaced. Depending on the extent of the damage, wooden furniture may be able to be dried, treated and restored. Technology and hardware – computers, phones, copiers, printers, etc. – do not fare well when it comes to water exposure.
Helping You Rise
Now that you’re familiar with the basic principles behind water damage recovery, you probably have a good sense of what types of damage you or your team can handle. Every emergency is unique. Preparation and planning for different water scenarios can go a long way in keeping your team or family ready to respond, and keeping your property protected from the worst damage.
Simple Category 1, clean water situations may be relatively easy to clean up, as long as you can respond within 24-48 hours.
In the case of a Category 2 or 3 flood involving contaminated water, you will want to call in an emergency restoration partner like First Onsite, even if you have the in-house resources to help tackle the job. With an advanced understanding of health and safety regulations, and the specialization to handle any water damage situation, we will help get you back to normal as quickly, safely and cost-effectively as possible.
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