How to Clean Up Flooded Homes Without Getting Sick

Despite health risks, volunteers have stepped up to help in Harvey’s aftermath. Here’s a guide to safe mucking.

Family members prepare to throw out water logged carpet as they clean up after the house was inundated with water after torrential rains caused widespread flooding during Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey on September 2, 2017 in Houston, Texas.

As the piles of soggy mattresses, decomposing particle-board furniture, waterlogged sheetrock, and discarded floorboards collect on curbsides across Houston and its sprawling suburbs, there’s no one claiming Hurricane Harvey has been a pleasant houseguest. With more than a million Texans displaced by the storm, trillions of gallons of rain inundated more than 40,000 homes in greater Houston alone. Countless homes remain underwater. Thousands of people are still in shelters. In Kingwood and elsewhere, families remain camped on their own lawns, waiting.

But Harvey has also given brash Texans a chance to showcase their grit and resourcefulness. First, rescuers took to floodwaters in smonster trucks and bass boats. And as recovery begins this week, roving cleanup crews offer more evidence of what it means to be a Texan. Thousands of Lone Star volunteers of all stripes—Southern Baptists and Black Lives Matter activists, new-school hippies and military veterans, Dallasites and San Antonians—and caravans of relief workers from out of state have stepped up to “muck” homes—shifting wet sofas, stripping paneling, and strategically opening up walls to help homeowners preserve what’s left of their property.

“Mucking,” or the process of salvaging buildings by removing all sodden materials to arrest the growth of mold and decomposition of framing timber, is a first step so that owners can potentially repair and rebuild. It’s difficult labor, and potentially dangerous: cleanup hazards include floodwaters contaminated with sewage and chemicals, which can seep into carpets and walls, not to mention displaced wildlife, live wires and upended nails. According to Harris County public health officials, area hospitals have seen an uptick in people suffering from respiratory ailments and skin afflictions such as cellulitis, a painful infection that requires antibiotic treatment, although although Harvey has not led public health officials to issue a broader health warning when it comes to gutting homes.

Some recovery crews, including the 7,000 professional support personnel deployed across the Texas Gulf Coast from disaster response outfit Servpro, are trained to assist with cleanup safely. “Goggles and gloves are your most crucial safety items,” says Bryan Stone, state director for Servpro, whose crews also are required to wear rubber boots and particulate (P90) respirator masks.

Elidee Pecina uses a mop to sop up the water in her bedroom after the house was inundated with water after torrential rains caused widespread flooding during Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey on September 2, 2017 in Houston, Texas.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

But for many ad-hoc volunteer teams, there is no protocol. That means not only do they face health risks, but they can also cause unintended damage when rushing to salvage a flooded home. “The biggest thing we are concerned with is exposure to mold and bacteria,” said Dr. Umair Shah, the executive director for Harris County Public Health. “We know people want to get back into their homes very badly, but we want to make sure that in coming back home and getting things cleaned up that people take the appropriate precautions. Common sense is critical. We don’t want to see residents needing additional treatment during this crisis.”

Fortunately, experienced crews like the Cajun Army, which got its start after last year’s devastating floods in western Louisiana, offers guidelines for citizens who want to help. Closely allied with the Cajun Navy, the army is more concerned with recovery than with rescue. Drawing devout volunteers from across the Gulf Coast, the Baton Rouge-born battalion not only provides hands-on assistance with debris removal and demolition, but also instructions to address many legal concerns. As of Monday, though, the Cajun Army Facebook page was so besieged with requests that the group was calling for reinforcements. Stretched to the limit, the Cajun Army will sit Irma out and continue loaning a helping hand in Texas for the next three to six months.

“There are a lot of people out there who don’t know what they’re doing,” says Chris King, one of the group’s founders. “We don’t want to just have a fish fry for you, we want to teach you to fish.” To that end, the gutting tips provided by the Cajun Army include baseline instructions: remove drywall to a foot above the flood line, take care not to pull entire sheets of difficult-to-replace fiberglass insulation from exposed exterior walls, and check tile floors for hollow spots underneath to determine whether tiles need to be removed.

Ronnie DeVries, a former hospital facilities administrator and current shop manager at Houston’s non-profit maker collective TXRX Lab, has also been compiling resources for non-profits mucking the Gulf Coast in a document freely available to Houston residents. Mucking guidelines from TXRX include turning off gas and electricity until utilities are inspected, working impaired buildings from front to back, and documenting discarded objects as well as scraps of carpet, drywall, and flooring as evidence for insurance adjusters or FEMA officials who might pay for replacement.

“A lot of times the order in which we do these things makes it easier to go faster,” DeVries said. “If we can save 30 minutes per house for 100,000 homes, that’s a lot.” Over the coming weekend, DeVries has scheduled seven free 1-hour classes for individuals and volunteer teams outlining best cleanup practices. His efforts have drawn the attention of Houston’s newly minted folk hero, businessman Jim “Mattress Mac” McIngvale, who has committed $25,000 to the TXRX outreach and recovery efforts.

DeVries cautions volunteers to avoid standing water without protective gear, and notes that it’s important to be vigilant about wearing a mask while mucking. “People sometimes pull their mask up and put it on their head when outside or taking a break,” he mentions. “Your head or hair is at that point covered in sweat, moisture, mold spores, and the inside of your mask soaks it up. You pull it back down onto your face and negate the point of the mask entirely.” E. coli in sediment, and cancer-causing asbestos buried in the walls of older homes are other concerns.

The Texas Department of State Health Services also has specific recommendations for decontaminating flooded homes. To disinfect homes after they’ve been gutted, TDSHS spokesperson Chris Van Duesen recommends spraying a mixture of one-part bleach to ten-parts water to knock out lingering viruses and bacteria floated in on floodwater. He stresses that residents should make sure to only apply it in well-ventilated areas as chlorine can cause or exacerbate respiratory distress (and make sure not to mix bleach and ammonia), and then scrub affected areas with a stiff brush to remove residue. According to Van Duesen, the best way to prevent mold—a major concern along the flooded coast— is to dry things out.

Mucking is brutal work, as I experienced over the past couple of weeks alongside hundreds of others volunteers while helping flooded neighbors. Black mold appears on walls in humid Houston after just a few days, while lost containers stored in dark closets hold stagnant water foul enough to make you gag. I’ve been left with fire-ant bites on my arms, and scraped by fiberglass insulation, raising irritating welts on my arms between my gloves and sleeves. But with a respirator covering my face and heavy boots on my feet, I keep tapping my network and searching for hard-hit homes.

Using borrowed tools, I have mucked from Dickinson down by the Houston Ship Canal to the northeast reaches of the Fifth Ward, where living conditions grow more dire by the day, just doing my part while the city I call home gets back on its feet – because when their neighbors are in need, that’s what Texans do.