NEED TO KNOW: Take precautions when returning home

Published: Sep. 17, 2018 at 2:24 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 17, 2018 at 11:49 AM EDT
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The dangers associated with a storm don't end when the weather clears. Dangling power lines, flooding and other hazards remain – and survivors should know what to do to safeguard themselves and their families.

"Remember to practice safety first as you return home," said Federal Coordinating Officer Mike Hall of FEMA. "It's important to first heed instructions from local authorities about when it's safe to go home. Then, take a few precautions before entering your neighborhood and your home."

Before returning home, survivors should make a cleanup kit that includes rubber gloves, cleaning products, bleach, sponges, goggles, spatula, rubber boots, odor-control products, trash bags, hydrogen peroxide, adhesive bandages, antibiotic ointments and work towels.

Survivors should read the following tips for staying safe BEFORE beginning the clean-up process.

Safety Tips: Before Entering a Building

Utility checks: Check for downed or loose power lines and gas leaks. Gas leaks can smell like rotten eggs. Call the utility company immediately if a gas leak is suspected. If a downed power line is seen, move away from the line and from anything touching it and contact the utility company. Do not try to move either the downed power line or anything in contact with it by using another object such as a branch, stick or broom. Do not drive over a downed line.

Look for external damage: Examine the foundation, roof and chimney for cracks or other damage. Inspect porch roofs and overhangs. If obvious damage is found or if serious safety doubts exist, contact a building inspector before going inside.

Enter the building slowly and carefully: If the door sticks at the top as it opens, it could mean the ceiling is ready to cave in. If forcing the door open, stand outside to avoid being hit by falling debris. If in doubt about the safety of a building, do not enter. If the ceiling is sagging, or other signs the building is in a weakened condition or about to collapse exist, leave the building immediately.

Safety Tips: After Entering a Building

Do not approach wild animals that take refuge in the home: Wild animals often seek refuge from floodwaters on upper levels of homes and have been known to remain after water recedes. Call animal control or a wildlife resource office to handle the situation. Also, watch household pets closely and keep them under direct control.

Double check and re-check for gas leaks: To be safe, assume there could be a gas leak in the house. Return to the home during daylight to avoid turning on lights. Do not light candles, cigarettes or operate electrical switches in the house until it has been inspected and is safe. If gas is smelled or a hissing or blowing sound is heard, open a window and leave immediately. Turn off the main gas valve from the outside, if possible. Call the gas company from a neighbor's residence or from a cell phone away from the building.

Be careful around electricity: If possible, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. If the situation is unsafe, leave the building and call for help. If in wet clothing, standing in water, or if unsure of safety, do not check the electrical system. An electrician may need to inspect the wiring.
Once the electrical power is turned off, unplug all appliances: Clean them out and let them dry. Then have them checked by a professional before using them again.

Check water and sewage systems: If pipes are damaged, turn off the main water valve. Check with local authorities to make sure the water is not contaminated. Some Louisiana neighborhoods are under boil advisory. Do not drink or cook with tap water until authorities declare the water supply is safe to drink.

Check the furnace and water heater: The water heater may work, but if floodwater covered part of the entire tank, the insulation between the walls may be damaged. Obtain an estimate to replace the damaged furnace and water heater.

Safety Tips for Cleaning Up

Protective clothing: Wear protective clothing and make sure hands, arms, feet, and legs are covered. If cuts exist on hands or other body parts, protect them from contact with water or debris. Wear a mask for protection from inhaling harmful odors or fumes while cleaning up. Even people with no known risk factors for mold should wear filtering face masks and gloves if they plan to do anything more than look around.

Use extreme caution as cleanup begins: Floors and stairs may be covered with debris and may be very slippery. Watch out for broken bottles, exposed nails, soft spots in the floor and other hazards. When opening cabinets, watch for objects that may fall because they are not secure in their usual place. Standing water should be removed. Fans at open doors and windows can be used to help with the drying out process. They should blow outward, not inward.

When it doubt, throw it out: Get rid of all food and other supplies that may have be contaminated or that may have come in contact with floodwater. Porous materials such as carpets, mattresses, furniture with upholstery should be thrown out. Insulation, ceiling tiles, wallboard, drywall and particle board should be discarded because they are porous.

Register with FEMA

If and when individual or public assistance money is approved for Hurricane Florence, it will be displayed here:

Once disaster assistance is approved, survivors can register online with FEMA at or via smartphone at Applicants may also call 1-800-621-3362 or (TTY) 1-800-462-7585. For 711 Relay or Video Relay Services call 1-800-621-3362. The toll-free telephone numbers are open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.