Safely Reentering an Evacuated Home

Be safe, be smart. If you’ve been displaced, all you can think about is getting back home. Wait!

As tough as it may be to hear this: a swift return may not be best for you, your family or your property. You could jeopardize both your safety and your family’s financial security (by hindering your insurance claim).

This may seem next to impossible. But remember: you are not alone. Emergency assistance workers, contractors, friends, and your insurance agent can help you return home in a safe manner, personally and financially.

Here are a few things to consider as you begin the process of re-entering you house. This is NOT a comprehensive list, but it can help you get started. You should listen to local authorities and/or your insurance agent regarding re-entering your home.

Returning Home

  1. Wait until authorities have declared it safe for you to return to your home.
    • Your home can become a dangerous environment because of structural damage or electrical hazards.
    • Local officials on the scene are your best source of information on accessible areas and passable roads.
    • If you cannot return home and need a place to stay, see our article on Temporary Housing Options.
  2. Often, counties and states require a re-entry sticker in order to return to an evacuated area.
    • The stickers can be attained from your local government authorities.
    • The color of sticker you receive depends on your area of residence.
    • If you do not have a sticker, you may be redirected to a designated waiting area until it is safe for you to re-enter the area or county.
    • The waiting areas are not designed for long-term stay so listen to your radio for details on when it is safe for you to return.
  3. Call your insurance agent(s). Find out if they need to go with you or if you can go with a friend. Ask them what you will need to note, and what you are allowed to touch (if anything) and let them know you will be recording the visit with a video recorder, camera, smartphone or tablet.
  4. Mentally prepare.
    • This process is emotional and very tiring.
    • If you have a hard time coping with the destruction, ask for help. Relief organizations often offer counseling services. Don’t feel bad about asking for assistance. This is why these people traveled to your area.
  5. Never go alone when returning home. Always take at least one other able-bodied person with you and let a third person know where you are going and when you will return.
  6. Gather supplies to bring with you. Read and print out What To Take With You (pdf) , our starter list of what supplies you may need. Read and print out our Records Recovery (pdf) checklist for important personal documents and records to bring with you or locate when you return home. Be sure you bring a backpack to carry your supplies in — or something else that leaves your hands free.
  7. Using graph paper, sketch a site plan of your property that notes the location of gas, electricity and water meters, if you know where they are located. Take this with you when you return to your home.
  8. Avoid driving until conditions improve or until authorities give clearance to drive in the area.
    • If you must drive, use caution.
    • Check vehicle for damage before using.
    • Give way to emergency vehicles at all times.
    • Debris and washed-out roads may make driving dangerous.
    • Know that any size car or SUV can be washed away with less than 18 inches of water.
    • If you come upon a barricade or a flooded road, turn around.
    • Beware of road and bridge washout.
    • Remember that you treat an intersection with a broken traffic signal as if it is a four-way stop.
    • If you are caught on a flooded road and waters are rising rapidly around you, if you can safely get out of the car, do so immediately and climb to higher ground. Never try to walk, swim or drive through such swift water.
    • If your car stalls, abandon it immediately and climb to higher ground. It is dangerous to attempt to move a stalled vehicle.
  9. Try to return to your home during the daylight hours for maximum visibility. Artificial light may not be available due to power loss.

Outside Your Home

Do NOT enter your home until you have completed the following exterior safety check and you have been told by an official that it is safe to enter. It may be best to wait for officials or your insurance agent before going to your home. Ask them what is in your best interest.

  1. Be safe, be smart.
  2. Wear goggles, face mask, rubber gloves and thick protective boots.
  3. Grab a wooden stick to turn things over and your flashlight (even if it’s light out this will help you spot dangerous areas and items).
  4. Be careful walking around your property. After a disaster, steps and floors are often covered with debris, including nails and broken glass.
  5. If you see downed lines, see sparks or smell burning with no visible fire or smell the “rotten eggs” odor that is added to gas, leave immediately and notify the authorities.
  6. Look for exterior structural damage on the house, including cracked foundations, sagging roofs, broken columns or piers, and unsupported porch roofs.
  7. Take pictures of the exterior at all angles, all sides no matter what is or isn’t left.
  8. Check trees, shrubs, and plants around your house. Note locations of where things used to be.
  9. Roofing
    • Check for roof damage if you see dented screens or soft aluminum roof vents.
    • Do not get on the roof. Inspect the roof using a pair of binoculars or camera with telephoto lens if necessary.
    • Examine the porch roofs and overhangs to be sure they still have all their supports. If any are missing, do not enter the house.
  10. If you’ve completed your safety check and the exterior appears structurally unsafe, has water around it, downed power lines or you smell gas, do NOT enter your home.

Entering Your Home

Do NOT enter your home if authorities have not allowed you into the area or your insurance agent said not to enter it.

Do NOT enter the building if water remains around the building. Flood waters often undermine foundations, causing buildings to sink, floors to crack or walls to collapse.

Be careful and ready to leave immediately. This may mean that you leave a precious family photo on a creaky stairwell. If you are not prepared to do this, do NOT re-enter your home.

Again, these guidelines are meant to help you think about what to do next — they are NOT comprehensive. This is why it is important to go with a professional, if you can.

  1. Be safe, be smart.
  2. Watch every step you take.
  3. Again, be ready to leave immediately.
  4. Do not enter if water is standing next to the outside walls of your home, if the ground has washed away or the foundation has cracks or other damage, since structural damage may have occurred.
  5. If the door sticks at the top as it opens, it could mean the ceiling is ready to cave in. Don’t walk under a sagging ceiling until it has been checked by professionals.
  6. Examine walls, floors, doors, staircases and windows to make sure that the building is not in danger of collapsing. Don’t know what to look for? Then don’t go in without an inspector.
  7. When entering damaged buildings, use extreme caution moving through debris presents further hazards. The disaster may have damaged buildings where you least expect it.
  8. Do not go in a room with standing water — it may cover electrical outlets and exposed lines.
  9. Remember, do not smoke, use candles, gas lanterns or other open flames inside and around your home.
  10. Don’t turn on your cell phone if there is danger of combustible gases. Cell phones can ignite such gases and create a major explosion.
  11. Watch out for animals, especially poisonous snakes that may have come into buildings with the water.
  12. Be aware of any unusual sounds or smells that could denote shifting foundations, escaping gas or downed wires.

What to Check For

Be safe, be smart.

  1. Electricity
    • Before using any electrical equipment or electrical appliances, have a certified electrician check items before starting them or turning the power on.
    • If you see sparks or broken or frayed wires, or if you smell burning insulation, call an electrician for advice.
    • Consult your utility company about using electrical equipment, including power generators. If a generator is online when electrical service is restored, it can become a major fire hazard.
  2. Gas leaks
    • If you smell gas or hear a blowing or hissing noise, open a window and quickly leave the building. Call the gas company from a neighbor's home.
    • If you turn off the gas or it isn’t working, it must be turned back on by a professional. Have a licensed plumber or the utility company check the gas lines before restoring service.
  3. Sewage and water line damage
    • If you suspect sewage lines are damaged, avoid using the toilets and call a plumber.
    • If water pipes are damaged, contact the water company, and avoid using water from the tap.
    • You can obtain safe water from undamaged water heaters or by melting ice cubes.
  4. Water damage, interior flooding
    • If flooded, pump out your basement gradually. The walls could collapse or the floors buckle if the surrounding ground is waterlogged. Not sure? Get an inspector.
    • Many health hazards are found in the mud and silt that floodwaters leave behind. Shovel as much mud as possible out of the house, then hose it down, inside and out.
    • If your home has sustained water damage, call your local American Red Cross chapter and get their booklet, “Repairing Your Flooded Home”; or get it as a PDF from The American Red Cross online.
  5. Structural
    • Open windows and doors to ventilate and dry your home, if possible.
    • Watch for loose plaster, drywall and ceilings that could fall.
    • To protect and minimize further damage, cover holes in roof or windows with tarps if necessary.

Retrieve Important Items

  1. Be safe, be smart.
  2. Leave items behind and get out immediately if the structure is unsafe, you smell gas or see downed power lines.
  3. When you re-enter your home, if you haven’t brought important documents with you, attempt to retrieve the following:
    • Personal identification: driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates
    • All insurance information (life, home, car)
    • Medical/medication information, including eyeglasses, hearing aids or other prosthetic devices
    • Valuables, such as credit cards, bank books/account numbers, photos, cash and jewelry
    • Recent statements, including mortgage, electric company, and other monthly bills
  4. Remember to look for important documents and records (pdf). Our pdf document will help. Hold onto them even if they appear to be damaged. Sometimes a damaged copy can speed up the replacement process. go here to read about who to contact about replacing documents.