6 Tips for Safely Reentering an Evacuated Home

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

Rely on advice and assistance from emergency assistance workers, contractors and your insurance agent do you can return home safely.

1. Check Road Conditions First

  1. Check with local officials on the scene for information about accessible areas and passable roads.
  2. Make sure your vehicle is road-worthy and has sufficient gas to avoid being trapped.
  3. Use caution and give way to emergency vehicles at all times.
  4. Treat an intersection with a broken traffic signal as if it is a four-way stop.
  5. Watch for debris and washed-out roads and bridges that may make driving dangerous.
  6. If you come upon a barricade or a flooded road, turn around. Any size car or SUV can be washed away with less than 18 inches of water.
  7. 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.
  8. If your car stalls, abandon it immediately and climb to higher ground. It is dangerous to attempt to move a stalled vehicle.

2. Check with Authorities Before Leaving

  1. Wait until authorities have declared it safe for you to return to your home.
  2. Ask if your county and/or state requires 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) to get advice and answers to key questions.
    • Are you permitted to be on your property? Enter your home or other structures?
    • Do you need to be accompanied by an insurance representative or can you go with a friend?
    • What do you need to note and how do they want the information? (Tip: record the visit with a video recorder, camera, smartphone or tablet.)
    • What are you allowed to touch and/or remove (if anything)? (Tip: Our Records Recovery Checklist identifies personal documents and records to bring with you or locate when you return home.)

3. Prepare for the Process

  1. Expect to be mentally upset and physically exhausted from dealing with the damage.
    • 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.
  2. Never go alone when returning home.
    • Always take at least one other able-bodied person with you.
    • Let a third person know where you are going and when you will return.
  3. Gather a starter list of supplies to bring with you. (Download our handy Returning Home After a Disaster-What to Take checklist.)
    • Pack them in a tote bag or a wheeled cart to make transporting them easier.
  4. Using graph paper, sketch a site plan of your property.
    • Note the location of gas, electricity and water meters
    • Buried power lines? Draw their approximate location
  5. Try to return to your home during the daylight hours for maximum visibility. Artificial light may not be available due to power loss.
  6. Wear protective gear: goggles, face mask, rubber gloves and thick protective boots.

4. Upon Arrival, Inspect the Outside Your Home

  1. Conduct an exterior safety check.
  2. Be careful walking around your property. After a disaster, the ground, steps and floors are often covered with debris, including nails and broken glass.
  3. 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.
  4. Use a wooden stick to turn over things and a flashlight to give you maximum visibility.
  5. Look for exterior structural damage on the house
    • Broken windows or damaged or missing screens
    • Cracks or shifts in the foundation blocks, columns or piers
  6. Check the roof for signs of damage. (Tip: Do NOT get on the roof. Instead, use a pair of binoculars or camera with telephoto lens.)
    • Sagging areas or missing tiles
    • Dented, damaged or missing roof vents or gutters
    • Missing or damage support columns. (Do NOT enter if porch roofs or overhangs seem unstable.)
  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. 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.

5. Inspect the Inside 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.

  1. Be careful and ready to leave immediately if anything appears unstable. 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.
  2. Go slowly and watch every step you take, and listen for any unusual noises.
  3. If the door sticks at the top as it opens, it could mean the ceiling is ready to cave in. Do NOT walk under a sagging ceiling until it has been checked by professionals.
  4. 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.
  5. When entering damaged buildings, use extreme caution moving through debris presents further hazards. The disaster may have damaged the structure where you least expect it.
  6. Do not go in a room with standing water — it may cover electrical outlets and exposed lines.
  7. Remember, do not smoke, use candles, gas lanterns or other open flames inside and around your home.
  8. 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.
  9. Watch out for animals, especially poisonous snakes that may have come into buildings with the water.
  10. Be aware of any unusual sounds or smells that could denote shifting foundations, escaping gas or downed wires.

Structural Damage Tips

  1. Open windows and doors to ventilate and dry your home, if possible.
  2. Watch for loose plaster, drywall and ceilings that could fall.
  3. To protect and minimize further damage, cover holes in roof or windows with tarps if necessary.

Interior Flooding Tips

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. If your home has sustained water damage, download the booklet, “Repairing Your Flooded Home” from The American Red Cross or stop by the local office to obtain a copy.

Important Items Retrieval Tips

  1. Leave items behind and get out immediately if the structure is unsafe, you smell gas or see downed power lines.
  2. Safely 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
  3. Can’t find important documents or they are too damaged to be used? Go here for contact information to replace documents and records that have been damaged, destroyed or lost. (Tip: Keep damaged documents since that may speed up the replacement process.)

6. Take Utility Service Precautions

  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 
    • 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 had turned off the gas prior to leaving or it isn’t working now, 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 
    • 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.