Cleaning Your Possessions and Home After a Disaster

by Susan Evans

After your insurance company representative has assessed the damage, you need to make a decision regarding the cleaning of your home and possessions.

You have two options: either hire certified restorers or serve as your own cleaner. Below are general cleaning tips should you choose to do the cleaning yourself.

These are starter guidelines, not end-all-be-all suggestions. Talk with friends and family for tips, sites, apps and contacts.

Have any tips of your own? E-mail us.

Before You Begin

WHN TIP – Advice from Experts: Listen to this podcast for tips on dealing with the aftermath of a fire.

This podcast covers water damage clean-up.

  1. After a serious fire or natural disaster, you might have to move out of the house during cleanup and repairs. Need a place to stay? Contact the Red Cross to see about any open shelters.
  2. If you are hiring cleaning professionals or restorers to clean up your home, see 7 Services from a Home Restoration Company.
  3. If you are doing the cleaning, bring these items before you return home – download our Returning Home After a Disaster-What to Take pdf – a starter list of supplies you may need plus documents and records. Bring a backpack for items or something easy to carry supplies in (think hands-free).
  4. Need supplies? The Red Cross can provide a voucher to purchase new clothing, groceries, essential medications, bedding, essential furnishings, and other items to meet emergency needs, as well as a cleanup kit: mop, broom, bucket, and cleaning supplies.
  5. Secure needed building permits and get advice on what needs to be inspected after repairs are done.

WHN TIP – Safety First: Protect your skin and respiratory tract from harmful fire, mold and chemical residue. During a fire or natural disaster, many chemicals may be released. Take breaks periodically from cleaning. Make sure you have access to plenty of fresh air while cleaning.

 Safety Guidelines

WHN TIP – Learn Ladder Safety: Download the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Ladder Safety App for advice on extension and step ladder safety. The free app is available for both iOS and Android devices.

  1. Unless they are trained, discourage friends and relatives from assisting in the process. There could be liability issues if they become injured or if they further damage the property or possessions.
  2. Keep children, elderly adults, individuals with asthma and pets (especially birds) away from the affected area.
  3. Electricity
    • Turn off the electricity at the main breaker or fuse box, even if the power is off in your community. That way, you can decide when your home is dry enough to have it turned back on.
    • Be sure to have electrical power turned off and exposed wires secured by a qualified electrician before working around appliances or wet surfaces.
  4. Disconnect all appliances and light fixtures. Power surges occurring when power is restored can damage appliances and fixtures.
  5. Read, understand and follow all safety precautions with all chemicals, tools, and appliances you work with.
  6. Generators
    • Be certain to follow approved connect requirements. It is against the law and a violation of electrical codes to connect generators to your home’s electrical circuits without the approved, automatic-interrupt devices. Improper connection of a generator to your home’s electrical circuits may endanger line workers helping to restore power in your area.
  7. Do not operate any gas-powered equipment indoors. They will use up oxygen and release deadly carbon monoxide.
  8. Whenever you are cleaning or rebuilding, make sure you have adequate protection: heavy gloves, NIOSH-approved face filter and boots.
  9. Cover clean items with plastic while further repairs are being carried out in the dwelling to prevent re-soiling.


  1. If possible, turn on air conditioning for maximum drying in summer; open windows to speed drying in winter.
  2. As you clean each room, seal it off from the rest of the house with duct tape and plastic film to help keep it clean.
  3. Clean and protect bathroom faucets, tub fittings, chrome/metal type towel bars with a light coating of oil.
  4. Wash plants with water on both sides of leaves (water softener helps).
  5. Be particularly careful to thoroughly disinfect surfaces that may come in contact with food, such as counter tops, pantry shelves, refrigerators, etc.
  6. Either wash all linens and clothing in hot water or dry clean them.
    • For items that cannot be washed or dry-cleaned, such as mattresses and upholstered furniture, air-dry them in the sun and then spray them thoroughly with a disinfectant.
  7. Remove and discard contaminated household materials that cannot be disinfected, such as wall coverings, cloths, rugs, and drywall.
  8. If flooded, pump out your basement gradually. The walls could collapse or the floor buckle if the surrounding ground is waterlogged.


  1. Before treating any garments, always read the care label for proper instructions.
  2. To remove water stains, use the following formula. Be sure to wear plastic gloves.
    • 4-6 tablespoons of TSP (Tri-Sodium Phosphate) (2 tablespoons of sodium hypochlorite can be substituted)
    • One (1) cup of household chlorine bleach
    • One (1) gallon of water
    • Mix well, soak clothing, rinse with clear water and dry well.
  3. Mildew is a bacteria growth, not simply dirt. To remove mildew stains, wash items in clothes detergent and water, rinse and dry in the sun. If stain and odor are still present, try the following formulas:
    • Lemon juice and salt – OR-
    • One (1) tablespoon of perborate bleach in 1 pint of lukewarm water – OR –
    • A diluted solution of household chlorine bleach.

Cooking Utensils

  1. Wash pots, pans, flatware with soapy water, rinse, and polished with a finely powdered cleaner.
  2. Pots and pans can be sterilized by boiling in water for at least 10 minutes.
    • CAUTION – Don’t burn yourself. Use potholders.
    • CAUTION – Some parts of the pots and pans (handles, knobs, etc.) WILL NOT withstand the high temperature. Remove such things where practical.

Flooring and Rugs

  1. Use a wet/dry shop vacuum for removing water from the floor and rugs.
  2. If the room was subject to a great deal of water, you may need to hire professionals to remove tacked-down carpeting or vinyl or other flooring, since water and resultant dampness can cause odors and warp floors.
  3. Let floor dry completely, prior to replacement of floor coverings. If mildew is not killed, the odor will return.
  4. Have rugs and carpeting thoroughly cleaned and dried as soon as possible, to reduce any possibility of mildew, mold or bleeding from the dye. Contact professionals to clean or, if needed, removed tacked-down carpeting and padding.
  5. Brush pile carpets in one direction to dry.
  6. If furniture cannot be removed, cover legs with plastic (plastic bags work) to avoid rusting or stains on the carpet.

Floors, Walls and Wallpaper

  1. Walls, hard-surfaced floors, and many other household surfaces should be cleaned with soap and water and disinfected with a solution of one (1) cup of bleach to five (5) gallons of water.
  2. Wear rubber gloves when cleaning, wash from the floor up, rinse immediately, and wash ceilings last.
  3. Do not repaint until walls and ceilings are completely dry.
  4. Heat and ventilate the room for several days to dry the plaster as well as the paper.
  5. If mildewed paper is washable, wipe it with a cloth wrung out of thick soapsuds, clean with clear water.
  6. Repaste edges or loosened sections.
  7. When washing wallpaper, work quickly so the paper does not become soaked. Work from the bottom up to prevent streaking.

Wood Furniture and Fixture

WHN Expert TIP – Furniture: Most furniture polishes and the turpentine-linseed solution are flammable. The cloth used in applying them is susceptible to spontaneous ignition, so hang the cloth outdoors to allow to dry.

  1. Wipe off all finished surfaces with a soft cloth dampened with a mild cleaning solution.
  2. Remove all drawers and open cabinets so they can dry thoroughly. This will prevent sticking.
  3. Clean friction surfaces (tracks and guides) with a stiff brush and cleaning solution.
  4. Dry thoroughly; wet wood can mold and decay. Open doors and windows for ventilation, and, if necessary, turn on a heater or air conditioner.
  5. Do not dry furniture in the sun. The wood may warp and twist out of shape.
  6. If mold is present or begins to form, wipe the area with a cloth soaked in a mixture of water and kerosene OR Borax dissolved in water.
  7. To remove white spots or film, rub the surface with a cloth soaked 1/2 cup of household ammonia and 1/2 cup of water.
  8. Wipe dry and polish with furniture wax or a solution of 1/2 cup turpentine and 1/2 cup of linseed oil.
  9. You can also rub the wood surface with a 4/0 steel wool pad dipped in liquid polishing wax, wipe with a soft cloth and then buff.


  1. Never try to peel apart photographs that have stuck together. Soak the photos in clear, clean water and rinse carefully and thoroughly, letting stuck photographs separate on their own.
  2. After washing the photos, dry them image side up on a smooth hard surface like a glass table or kitchen counter. If they stay damp, they can be damaged by mold.
  3. If you have quantities of wet photos, wrap them in plastic wrap and freeze them, then thaw them and wash them a few at a time.


  1. Books can be dried by placing them on end, followed by pressing the book together. Alternately drying and pressing can help prevent mildew until thoroughly dried.
  2. The best method to save wet books is to freeze them in a vacuum freezer. This special freezer will remove the moisture without damaging the pages. If there will be a delay in locating such a freezer, then place them in a normal freezer to prevent mildew formation.
  3. Sprinkling cornstarch or talc between the pages will aid in the drying of very damp books – leave powders on for several hours and lightly brush off.

Leather Items and Footwear

  1. Wipe leather goods with a damp cloth, then a dry cloth. Use of a polish or saddle soap on smooth leather items can restore necessary lanolin and oils.
  2. Suede items can be brushed with light steel wool, fine wire brush or fine sandpaper.
  3. Consult a dry cleaner for heavily stained leather garments.
  4. Stuff purses and shoes with newspapers to retain shape.
  5. Leave suitcases open.
  6. Leather goods should be allowed to dry in a well-ventilated area away from direct sun or heat.

Paper and Coin Money

  1. U.S. Savings Bonds
  2. Paper and Coin Currency
    • If your currency has been mutilated, you may be able to get it replaced.
    • For more information visit the Treasury Department’s Web site.


  1. Be smart, be safe.
  2. Before you begin cleaning outdoors, be sure you are wearing appropriate, protective clothing (heavy shoes, gloves, long pants, etc.)
  3. Begin cleaning up outside downed limbs, broken glass and other debris. Call trained professionals for major tree removal.
  4. Keep your receipts for tarps, wood, and other items purchased to prevent further loss, since these expenses may be reimbursable under your homeowner’s insurance policy.
  5. Clean out debris and leaves from storm drains, downspouts and gutters to allow water to flow.

For More Information

US Fire Administration: After the Fire! Returning to Normal
Tips for dealing with the aftermath of a fire at your home.

Photo Credit: Pexels

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