From downtown Toronto to the Saint John River basin in Nova Scotia to southern Saskatchewan, flooded homes are a constant problem. During the last century, about 200 people have died in floods and billions of dollars worth of property damage has occurred.

Even if your home isn't on a flood plain, ageing municipal water mains sometimes break or heavy rains can create a flooded basement just about anywhere, anytime. If you're the victim of a flood, it's important that you take action quickly to minimize the damage to your home.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. says your house and furnishings are less likely to grow mould if you start taking action immediately. After it's safe to go back to your home, make sure the power is shut off to the flooded area at the breaker box – get help from your electrical utility if necessary. Make sure the gas is shut off if your home has a gas furnace or appliance that may have been flooded. If you smell gas, get away from the house and don't touch any electrical switches or fixtures – or strike a match! Contact the gas company.

You should also contact your insurance company immediately. Once it's safe to enter the house, take photos or videos of the damage.

Remove the most valuable items from the home first. If you have important papers that have been damaged, place them in a freezer until you have time to work on repairing them. If the weather permits, open the doors and windows to get fresh air moving through the house.

Floodwater is generally extremely dirty and you must assume that it has been contaminated. In rural areas it will have passed over farmyards, manure piles, overflowing septic systems…you get the picture. In the city, there's a good chance the sewer water has backed up into the basement. What this all means is that you are probably going to have to make some tough decisions and throw out many of your belongings. Anything soft, such as carpets, mattresses and thick upholstered furniture that has been damaged with sewage or floodwater, can't easily be cleaned up and should be discarded.

If the water hasn't included sewage, upholstered furniture should be left outside to dry completely. According To HealthLink B.C., direct sunlight has a strong disinfecting power.

It says that if your home is served by public water supply, it is probably safe – your utility will let you know if it isn't. If you have your own well, you must assume that it's contaminated until you can get it tested. If the water in the well appears clear, boil it before use.

If the basement is full of water, standing water should be disinfected using a mix of two quarts of household bleach in a pail of water, spread over the basement water and mixed in as much as possible. This should be repeated every four or five days that the water is there, says HealthLink B.C.

You also have to be careful that you don't pump water out too quickly. If the soil surrounding the basement is waterlogged, it may cause the basement walls to collapse or the floors to uplift.

Professional assistance may be required.

Any food that has come in contact with floodwaters should be destroyed. Canned goods can be kept if you are sure there's no damage to the seal and the can isn't bloated, but the labels should be removed and the can washed in warm, soapy water. Previously opened bottles and cans must be discarded.

Wash your hands well after handling anything that has been exposed to floodwater. Everything should be treated like it's a hazardous material.

All inside surfaces in the home must be washed with a sanitizing solution, made by mixing one pound of chlorinated lime to six to 10 gallons of water. HealthLink BC says household laundry bleaches with five to six per cent sodium hypochlorite may also be used. Mix one quart of household bleach to six to 10 gallons of water. Make sure you wear gloves and eye protection when mixing the solutions.

The Government of Saskatchewan's brochure Cleaning Up After the Flood offers some other cleaning solution ideas. It says children and pregnant women should stay away during cleanup work and that any repainting and redecorating must be left until everything is completely dry and sanitized. "In general, start at the top and work your way down," it suggests. "Remember: When in doubt, throw it out."

However, there are some things we can't bear to throw out, such as old photos. They can be rinsed with cold, clean water, but don't touch or blot the surfaces. Hang them up to air dry them, taking care that the clips don't touch the image area, or lay the photos flat on absorbent paper. Don't let the photos touch adjacent surfaces or each other. Like other documents, you can also wrap up photos and freeze them until you have time to work on restoring them.

For artwork, keep the wet paintings horizontal with the paint side up and nothing touching the surface.

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