Waterlogged world: Even when the flood is gone, New Orleans will have to dry itself out
September 1, 2005
Even when Katrina’s floodwaters are pumped out of New Orleans – a process that could take weeks – the city will be anything but dry.Buildings, vehicles and their contents will be waterlogged and covered with mud. Whatever debris is currently sloshing around in the floodwaters will be strewn about the city in enormous piles.Everything will be waterlogged, most of it ruined. It will be a monumental task just coordinating the collection and disposal of debris and trash.”There will be a heck of a lot of stuff thrown out,” said French Wetmore, a floodplain management consultant who has worked in New Orleans.Virtually everything worth keeping will have to be washed off, decontaminated and dried out. The city’s drinking water distribution system will need to be flushed out and disinfected, a process that could take weeks or even months.”Based off my experience and what I’ve seen there, I think they’re in for a long haul,” said L.D. McMullen, general manager of the Des Moines Water Works. It took McMullen and his colleagues 19 days to restore the Des Moines water supply when that city was flooded in 1993.Buildings will have to be stripped down to their studs and dried out with dehumidifiers, a process that can’t even begin in New Orleans until electricity is restored weeks or months from now. Disaster Kleenup International, a firm that specializes in repairing property damage caused by natural catastrophes, is already at work drying out several hospitals in Biloxi, Miss., said company president Dale Sailer.Stores and offices on lower floors will have to be gutted and dried, further delaying the resumption of business in an economically paralyzed city.For many homeowners, the expense and effort may not even be worth it. The median home in New Orleans costs about $87,000 – by the time you figure in debris removal, demolition, drying and rebuilding, it may be cheaper simply to knock the whole house down and build a new one on its foundation.”People with flood insurance will be able to afford it, if they had enough coverage,” Wetmore said.Only about half of New Orleans homeowners have flood coverage. For those who don’t, federal grants or loans may help cover the cost. But many homeowners will probably try to restore their homes by themselves, which can be a risky proposition.”We need a major public information effort to convince people that you don’t just go in and hose the walls,” Wetmore said.People who neglect to dry out their houses completely will soon have mold growing in their walls, ceilings and floors, experts said.Professionals can salvage just about any flood-damaged item, Sailer said, but usually only the rarest and most valuable objects are worth the cost.Flooded cars can usually be restored to working order, but they often have mechanical problems for years afterward. Many insurance adjusters simply total a car if it has been flooded above its dashboard, where many of the vehicle’s most sensitive electronic components are located.And like buildings, unless they are dried thoroughly, cars are prone to mold growth and odors that are virtually impossible to get rid of.Surprisingly, flood-damaged computers and other electronic equipment can almost always be dried out and restored, said David Liebl, chief financial officer of Disaster Services, Inc. The Atlanta-based company specializes in salvaging damaged electronics.”The critical thing is that they not be plugged in until they are dry,” Liebl said.The cost of drying an average television or microwave oven would be prohibitive, he said, but might be justified by business computers or a personal hard drive containing especially valuable data.