Immediately following a disaster or before emergency responders arrive, if it is safe to do so, carefully walk around the outside of your home and check for loose power lines, gas leaks and structural damage. Also check the roof, foundation and chimney for failure. If it appears that the building is unstable, do not go inside. If you have any doubts about safety, evacuate your home. An inspection may actually be required by municipal building officials before re-entry is permitted.
If you are satisfied that it is safe to enter your home, listen for shifting or unusual noises that signal that the structure may fall. Leave immediately if you hear strange noises, or if you smell gas or suspect a leak. If you smell gas, do not turn on the lights, light matches, smoke, or do anything that could cause a spark. Use a battery-powered flash light to inspect a damaged home, but turn it on outside before entering – the battery may produce a spark that could ignite leaking gas, if gas is present.
Once you’ve assessed your situation, call your insurance agent if your property has sustained noteworthy damage. Take pictures of damages. Keep good records of repair and cleaning costs.
When assessing your home, check for the following:
Natural Gas Leaks
If you smell gas or hear a hissing or blowing sound, leave immediately. Turn off the main gas valve from the outside, if you can and know how. Call your natural gas provider on a cell phone from outside the building or call from a neighbour’s home. If you shut off the gas supply at the main valve, you will need a professional to turn it back on. Do not smoke or use lanterns or candles for lighting inside a damaged home until you are sure there is no leaking gas or other flammable materials present.
Union Gas and Enbridge Gas both provide safety information for customers on their websites.
Home Electrical Problems
Look for sparks, broken or frayed wires. Do not check the electrical system if you are wet, standing in water or unsure of your safety. If possible and you know how, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. Do not touch the electrical panel or use power tools, if you are standing in water. If the situation is unsafe, leave the building and call for help. Do not turn on the lights until you are sure they’re safe to use. You may want to have an electrician inspect your wiring before turning the power back on.
Do not touch fallen electrical wires. They may be live and could hurt or kill you or others.
If appliances are wet, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker, if it is safe to do so, as explained above. Then, unplug appliances and let them dry out. Have appliances checked by a professional before using them again.
Household Water and Sewage Leaks
If water pipes are damaged, turn off the main water supply valve (learn how to do this if you don’t already know). Once the system is repaired and water service restored, watch for special instructions from the municipality or Lambton Public Health – residents may be instructed to run their taps or boil the water first. Do not flush toilets until you know that sewage lines are intact.
If your basement has flooded, pump it out gradually (about one third of the water per day) to avoid damage – the walls may collapse and the floor may buckle if the basement is pumped out while the surrounding ground is still waterlogged.
Heavy rainstorms can overwhelm storm sewer systems and cause water to back-up into basements. Although combined sewers are becoming less common as they are replaced, extremely heavy rainfalls can cause sewage and storm water to combine in some cases, resulting in sewage back-flowing into basements.
Consider hiring a professional restoration company for clean-up or, thoroughly clean all hard surfaces (such as concrete, metal furniture, countertops, appliances, etc.) with hot water and laundry or dish detergent. Then disinfect the surfaces with a mixture of 1 cup of bleach in 22 litres (5 gallons) of water. Note that flood water may seep under flooring or into particle board furniture, which may be impossible to disinfect and dry.
Wear rubber boots, rubber gloves, and goggles when cleaning with bleach. Open windows and doors to get fresh air. Never mix bleach (laundry bleach, some bathroom cleaners) and ammonia (found in products such as glass and oven cleaners) because the fumes from the mixture could kill you.
Use fans and dehumidifiers and open doors and windows to remove moisture. To remove mold, mix 1 cup of bleach in 4.5 litres (1 gallon of water), wash the item with the bleach mixture, scrub rough surfaces with a stiff brush, rinse the item with clean water, then dry it or leave it to dry.
Discard items that cannot be washed and disinfected (such as mattresses, carpeting, upholstered furniture, pillows, books, wall coverings, etc.).
Remove and discard drywall and insulation that has been contaminated with sewage or flood waters (or hire someone to do the work). Check with your insurance company to see if you are covered for damages.
Your municipality may arrange for special garbage collection following a disaster or flood event.
Call your local fire department’s administration number to have it inspect or remove chemicals and other dangerous materials. If you cannot reach the fire department or municipal office, call 9-1-1. In some cases, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change will also have to be notified. Be sure to wash any exposed skin that may have come in contact with hazardous materials.
If you live in an older home or neighbourhood that has been damaged by a tornado or strong winds, be aware that asbestos fibers in insulation, mortar and plaster could have been be disturbed and made air-borne, contaminating the air and dust within the disaster area. This possibility (later confirmed) was a significant concern in the aftermath of the Goderich Tornado in 2011, considering the historic architect of the damaged town. Also be aware when sanding or sawing previously painted surfaces, that lead in old paint can become air-borne and hazardous to workers. Consequently, special health protection measures and disposal procedures may need to be followed to ensure personal and public safety when working within disaster areas. The Ontario Ministry of Labour website contains specific references to asbestos and tornado damage.
Much of the information for this article was obtained from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency website.