Healthy Homes - Clean Up After a Flood


There are many reasons why your may flood with water.  Floods from broken pipes, a leaky roof, washing machine overflow, ice makers breaking, or water heaters bursting are all too common inside a home.  Flooding from too much rain to fast will  flood outside your home.  When there is too much rain water for the ground to absorb or the creeks to carry away, area-wide can quickly damage homes and leave behind muddy messes to clean up. It is important to consider the amount of water and the source, before cleaning up. Here are some ideas and resources to help you safely clean up your home after a flood.

Mopping up after a broken water heater

Flooding from broken water heaters, water pipes, washing machines, or ice makers can quickly pour water into your home. Obviuosly, turning off the water supply is an important first step to cleaning up. Thankfully water from these sources is often clean water and a bit easier to mop up.

There are several reasons why a water heater may leak including life span, corrision and rust, or thermostat malfunctions. Because water heaters and boilers are mostly located in infrequently visited areas of the home like a basement or utility closet, small water leaks may not be noticed for a some time.  A water supply pipe or heater that bursts can quickly spill a lot of water into a home.  

To begin mopping up after a broken water heater, turn off the electricity or natural gas to the heater. Check to make sure the water is not scalding hot. Look around for electrical outlets or wires that are wet or submerged in water to avoid electrical shock. Find the cold water pipe going into the heater and turn the valve clockwise until it won’t twist anymore. Normally when the tank is full the water supply will shut itself off, but due to the leak, the tank will not fill up and the water will continue to run.

After the area is determined to be safe, it's time to mop up the water. Towels are often enough to absorb small water spills. Larger water spills probably need the help of a shop vac style water vacuum. After most of the water is mopped up, it is important to ventilate the area until it is completely dry. Usually drying an area thoroughly soon after the water spill will prevent mold or other water damage problems. If water soaked into building materials or the leak was not discovered quickly, weak, warped, rotten, or otherwise damaged building materials probabaly should be removed and discarded.

Reentering your flooded home

Flooding from heavy rainfall often invovles left over debris and mud, shutting off multiple electrical systems, more damaged appliances, loss of personal items, and maybe even loss of the whole home.

When You First Reenter Your Home
• If you have standing water in your home and if you can turn off the electrical power from a dry location, then turn off the power. If you must enter standing water to access the main power switch, consider calling an electrician or other professional to safely turn off the power to avoid electrical shock.
• Have an electrician check the house’s electrical system before turning the power on again.
• If the house has been closed up for several days, enter briefly to open doors and windows to let the house air out for awhile before you stay for any length of time.
• If your home has been flooded and has been closed up for several days, presume your home has been contaminated with mold.
• If your home has been flooded, it also may be contaminated with sewage.

Dry Out Your House
• If you have electricity and an electrician has determined that it’s safe to use a “wet-dry” shop vacuum or an electric- powered water transfer pump to remove standing water. If you are operating equipment in wet areas, be sure to wear rubber boots.
• If you do not have electricity, or it is not safe to turn it on, you can use a portable generator to power equipment to remove standing water. Note: If you must use a gasoline-powered pump or tools to clean your home, never operate the gasoline engine inside a home, basement, garage, carport, porch, or other enclosed or partially enclosed structures, even if the windows and doors are open. Improper use can create dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.
• If weather permits, open windows and doors of the house to aid in the drying-out process.
• Use fans and dehumidifiers to remove excess moisture. Fans should be placed at a window or door to blow the air outwards rather than inwards, so not to spread the mold.
• Have your home heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system checked and cleaned by a maintenance or service professional who is experienced in mold cleanup before you turn it on.
• Ensure that crawl spaces in basements have proper drainage to limit water seepage. Ventilate to allow the area to dry out.

Protecting your family from mold

When returning to a home has been flooded, be aware mold might be present and might be a health risk for your family.  Consider wearing a mask to cover your mouth and nose to avoid breathing in mold or other dusts.  Eye protection and gloves are good, too.  Keep in mind people with asthma, allergies, immune suppression, or other breathing conditions can be more sensitive to mold.

You may recognize mold by:

·         Sight - Are the walls and ceiling discolored?   Do you see water damage stains or mold growth?

·         Smell - Do you smell a bad odor?  Does the area smell musty, earthy,  or foul?

To prevent mold growth:

·         Open doors and windows. Use fans to dry out the building. Remove all items that have been wet for more than 48 hours and that cannot be thoroughly cleaned and dried.

·         To remove or prevent mold growth from hard surfaces use commercial products, soap and water, or a bleach solution of no more than 1 cup of bleach in 1 gallon of water.  Always follow the manufacturer's instructions when using bleach or any other cleaning product.

For more information about how to clean up mold, visit the EPA's mold website or the health information on our Healthy Homes webpage about mold.  Here is a downloadable booklet; the EPA's Mold, Moisture, and Your Home.  If you are cleaning up a building, review EPA's Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings publication.  This CDC Cleanup and Remediation webpage has many more publications for download.

8 Tips to Clean Up Mold

Preventing foodborne illnesses

Follow these steps to keep your food safe during and after flood conditions.
1. For your safety, do not eat any food that may have contacted flood water.
2. Throw away perishable foods (including meat, poultry, fish, eggs and leftovers) that have been above 40°F for 2 hours or more. Thawed food that contains ice crystals or is 40°F or below can be refrozen or cooked.
3. Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with flood water.
     o Food containers that are not waterproof include those with screw-caps, snap lids, pull tops, and crimped caps.
     o Also, discard cardboard juice, milk, or baby formula cartons and home canned foods if those foods contacted  flood water as these food products are often difficult to clean and sanitize.
4. Inspect canned foods and discard any food in damaged cans. Throw away canned foods that are bulging, opened, or damaged.
     o If food cans contacted floodwater or storm water, remove the labels, wash the cans, and dip in a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water (or the cleanest, clearest water available) for 15 minutes.
     o Any concentrated baby formula in reconditioned, all-metal containers must be diluted with clean, drinking water.
5. Thoroughly wash metal pans, ceramic dishes, and utensils (including can openers) with soap and water, using hot water if available. Rinse, and then sanitize them by boiling in clean water or immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water (or the cleanest, clearest water available).
6. Thoroughly wash countertops with soap and water, using hot water if available. Rinse, and then sanitize by applying a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water (or the cleanest, clearest water available). Allow to air dry.

Cleaning up sewage

With a mix of water, liquid and solid human waste, and other flushed materials, sewage water requires more effort to clean up. Sewage water should be assumed biologically dirty and more protective safety measures should be used while cleaning up and washing yourself after is important.

Secure and prepare the area

  • Isolate the affected area to prevent further contamination.
  • Remove all items or objects that can be disinfected later, such as garden furniture, toys, washing line props, pegs, etc.

If the sewage spill is minor:

  • For more floors or surfaces, liberally sprinkle garden lime until the affected area is covered in white dust.  For concrete cement floors use 10% bleach water for cleaning.
  • If sewage is thicker in certain areas, mix in lime with a rake or a spade.
  • Let lime-covered areas stand for 24 hours.
  • Once dry, shovel sewage-contaminated lime into doubled, heavy-duty trash bags.
  • Wash remnants of dried lime away from the ground with a garden hose.
  • Use a hose, sprinkler, or watering can to water over the area.
  • Let the area dry in the sun for a day. Sunlight helps kill bacteria so don’t rake the affected area right away as this can slow down the process.
  • If you still see white dust from lime, water it until it disappears.

If the sewage spill is major (or there is a lack of sun, such as in winter):

  • Contact an approved pumper truck or a sewage clean up company. Large amounts of liquid can be extracted from the ground using a vacuum tanker.
  • Solid waste and debris left behind needs to be removed by hand and placed into bin bags and then into the garbage.
HC flooding 3

Applying for FEMA assistance

The Federal Emergency Management Agency ( offers disaster assistance for homeowners, renters, and business owners affected by some types of disasters such as floods, tornadoes, or wild fires.

Government disaster assistance covers basic needs only and will not normally compensate you for your entire loss. If you have  insurance, the government may help pay for basic needs not covered under your insurance policy. Some disaster aid does not have  to be paid  back, while other forms of help may come in the form of loans.

Apply by phone: 1-800-621-FEMA (1-800-621-3362)

(TTY 1-800-462-7585 for the speech- or hearing-impaired)

Checking your septic system

Septic systems or more formally, onsite wastewater treatment systems, treat small wastewater flows, usually from individual homes. Onsite wastewater treatment systems are common in rural or large lot settings when centralized wastewater treatment is impractical.

Most onsite treatment systems have two parts:

(1) a septic tank and

(2) a soiltreatment area.

Your septic system treats household wastewater by temporarily holding it in the septic tank where heavy solids separate from the wastewater. This separation process is known as primary treatment. The solids stored in the
tank are decomposed by bacteria. A professional septic tank pumper then is hired to remove the solids. In secondary treatment, the wastewater drains through perforated pipes into the soil treatment area. Your system is designed to handle a specific amount of water. Large volumes of water will overload the septic system.

After a lot of rainfall, you will likely need to minimize household water draining and flushing into the septic system
as the soil treatment area drains. After a flood, your onsite wastewater treatment system will have limited absorption capacity as the ground in your yard will be saturated with rainwater. The waste effluent coming from the septic tank basically has no place to go. This will flood the inside of the septic tank. Watch out for puddles after a heavy storm near your drain field and tank and for septic tank odors. Look out for slow drainage signs such as poor toilet flushes as well as backups or overflow especially for drains and toilets at lower ground levels. These are signs that point to a flooded septic tank.

If your home is damaged from a flood and heavy equipment is needed, make sure to note where your septic tank is located. Avoid parking or driving heavy equipment or vehicles over the septic tank. Digging around the septic tank should be prohibited especially when flooded. After heavy rains, it’s necessary to inspect your drain field. Some heavy storms may end up damaging your drain field. In this case, a new drain field will need to be installed. After flooding rains or before making landscaping changes consider having your septic tank inspected by a professional.

Sometimes heavy rainfall and flooding leaves the ground so saturated with water that understand septic tanks or other buried storage tanks will float up. Repairs or replacement may be necessary.  If your septic tank has an electrical pump, be sure to shut off the electrical power during the flood and when making repairs.  For
more about septic systems visit the Septic Smart website.

Once floodwaters have receded, there are several things homeowners should remember:

  • Do not drink well water until it is tested, contact your local health department. 
  • Do not use the sewage system until water in the soil absportion field is lower than the water level around the house. 
  • If sewage has backed up into the basement, clean the area and disinfect the floor. Use a chlorine solution of a half cup of chlorine bleach to each gallon of water to disinfect the area thoroughly.  
  • Be sure the septic tank manhole cover is secure and that inspection ports have not beel blocked or damaged. 
  • Check the vegetaion over your septic tank and soil absorption field. Repair erosion damage and sod or reseed areas as necessary to provide turf grass cover. 

For more information from the EPA on what to do with a septic system after a flood Click Here



FEMA Repairing Your Flooded Home


FEMA Mold & Mildew Flood Damaged Home


EPA Flood Cleanup and Air in Home


EPA Flood Cleanup Indoor Air Quality


NCHH Field Guide  Flooded Home Cleanup


EPA Mold Remediation


HUD Guide for Team Leaders to Help Disaster Victims


HUD Rebuild Healthy Homes

Fact Sheets


CDC Guide to Mold Cleanup After Flood


FEMA Saving Family Heirlooms


Red Cross Flood Safety Checklist

EPA Videos

Government resources

Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA)

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
Disaster Recovery Resources

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Resources for Flood Cleanup and Indoor Air Quality

Tennessee Department of Health Emergency Preparedness Program

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Reentering your Flooded Home
Floodwater After a Disaster or Emergency
Mold Cleanup and Remediation
Reopening Outdoor Public Spaces After Flooding