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As The Floodwaters Subside, Rebuilding Begins. How To Prepare Before Returning Home

A home in the Brownfields neighborhood of Baton Rouge, August 17, 2016.
Jesse Hardman
A home in the Brownfields neighborhood of Baton Rouge, August 17, 2016.

Floodwaters that have swamped at least 40,000 homes throughout south Louisiana have begun to recede, and people are returning to assess the devastation.

But returning to your home can be a dangerous, disgusting, heart-rending experience. Catherine Crowell, Director of Rebuilding Together New Orleans, has these tips on how to prepare for assessing, gutting and repairing your home after a flood disaster.


Many streets and neighborhoods remain flooded, roads are washed out, and dangerous debris is spread everywhere. Stores are closed, and food and water can be scarce. Many places are still in the emergency response phase, and people are still being rescued. Listen to police and emergency notifications and stay clear of dangerous areas.

“Personal safety is the number one thing to keep in mind as people return to their homes,” says Crowell. “A lot of streets have water deeper than you realize.”

You can register with FEMA even if your parish isn't under a disaster declaration. Click the link to the left to learn more.

Register with FEMA right now. Doing it sooner is better than waiting. You do not need to be in a parish with an official disaster declaration to register, and more parishes have been added to the disaster list in recent days.

Apply for disaster foodstamps.

You may be eligible for disaster unemployment benefits.


You’ll need supplies before you get started on your home, Crowell says. August in Louisiana means it’s hot — very hot — so you’ll be juggling two different disasters at once. Stock up on food, water and gasoline.

“Because it’s so hot, it’s important for people to be cognizant of the exhaustion,” she says. “Doing strenuous activities in extreme heat and humidity can lead to health emergencies, especially for any family members or friends with health conditions. Be careful not to exert yourself, because the last thing you need is a medical emergency when you’re trying to deal with the rest of this.”

If possible, get an updated tetanus shot before beginning to gut your home. “No matter how careful you are, you will probably scrape yourself on something,” Crowell says. “The shots last ten years, but get an updated one at an urgent care center or your doctor.”


If you are able to get back to your house, the first thing you should do is turn off your utilities, Crowell says. However, if you’re in standing water, stay away and get an electrician to do it. If the ground is dry, turn off the electricity at the box outside, as well as the water meter.

“You don’t want to start gutting with power still in the house, if you haven’t had an electrician say the house is safe to use that electricity.”

Make sure to dress for the work. Wear long sleeves and pants, put on gloves, and wear some kind of eye protection. “A lot of these dangers are in vapor form, so they can get into your eyes as well,” Crowell says. “With mold, it’s very tricky. People react to it very differently. If anyone has any respiratory illnesses such as asthma, or if they are young children or senior citizens, they are more susceptible to having a pretty intense reaction to it.”

Get a respirator, not just a mask. Respirators can be purchased at Home Depot, and have a rating on the side of the box — get one with at least an N95 rating.

“If you are seeing mold in the house, you will probably want something even stronger than that,” she says.

“Mold grows fast. It is a living organism. Drywall is great food for mold, as is anything that porous. Any kind of carpet, fabrics. Anything sitting in water. It’s important to realize this water is not clean. There’s some sewage in there, some chemicals, so it’s not like if you were to spill some water on the couch — this water is poisonous. A lot of things are going to have to be thrown out that are porous.”

Anything that has mold or is susceptible to mold needs to be bagged up, Crowell says.

“Since mold is a living organism, it’s not enough to just put the moldy drywall on the side of the road, because all of the spores are going to be floating in the air and traveling around. So, anything you think has mold, you are going to want to wrap that up in a contractor bag so that it is not proving a health hazard to those that are outside — but also so that it is not spreading to other building materials in your house that you are now trying to save… or to your neighbors.”

Mold is a living organism and can spread from debris outside back into your home. Clean what you can and bag the rest.
Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO
Mold is a living organism and can spread from debris outside back into your home. Clean what you can and bag the trash.


“I wish I had a very easy list of what to get and what not to get,” to repair your home, says Crowell. “With any kind of donated materials, you want to be extra cautious and do a little research before you accept it and install it in your home.”

Protect yourself in dealings with contractors. You can check to see if a contractor is licensed.

“If a contractor is licensed through the licensing board, that means they hold a certain amount of general liability and workers comp insurance, and means they have been through that vetting process,” she says. But it’s not a failsafe. Crowell says there was some fraud by contractors after Hurricane Katrina, but in many more instances many contractors tried to do the right thing and got overwhelmed by the amount of work they took on, or just didn’t have the skill level necessary to complete the work. Her organization is spending a lot of time now repairing faulty jobs done in the post-Katrina rebuilding effort.


“Getting any sort of thing in writing is going to help,” Crowell says. “If there is an instance of contractor fraud, and you have no proof, it’s going to be very, very difficult. It’s still something we’re dealing with in New Orleans, homeowners that used their Road Home grants to pay someone, and then they left, and there’s nothing to show for it. And it’s very difficult to find funding for that.”

Documentation isn’t just to prevent fraud, she says. It’s also to make sure you and your contractor are on the same page. “Especially right after the storm, you want to get back in, but having things in writing puts you on the same page —  what the floor plan should look like, what materials you want in the house, what is your timeline. It’s always really great to have that on paper and have both of you sign it, so it lessens the amount of arguments that can come up later.”

Most importantly, through every step of the process, is take pictures, pictures, pictures, she says.

“Don’t just take a picture of the closet, push the clothes aside. Take pictures of everything. That’s something a lot of people forget to do, and it causes problems.”


St. Bernard Project

New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity

Project Homecoming

Flood Info Page — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

FEMA Flood Insurance Claims Handbook

National Flood Insurance Program

Jason Saul served as WWNO's Director of Digital Services. In 2017 he took a position at BirdNote, in Seattle.

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