The American Cleaning Institute (ACI)

Cleaning After a Flood or Emergency

Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces in your home after flooding is a major undertaking. It is important that it be done right to prevent further damage to the property and help prevent illness. Choosing and using the right cleaning product for the job is critical. Keeping cleaning products in a secure location after a flood and during cleaning is crucial.
Truck driving through hurricane force wind and flooding

From torrential downpours to broken pipes to leaky roofs, when water invades your home, the damage can be swift and brutal. Mold growth and food contamination are two major concerns.Your very first step should be to pick up the phone and call your insurance agent and report the water damage. Best-case scenario is to do this within 24 hours. Your insurance broker should be able to recommend a contractor with experience in repairs and mold removal. Your house and furnishings are less likely to grow mold if they are dried within 48 hours, so prompt attention is imperative.

Severe water damage definitely requires the help of outside specialists. And some difficult decisions may have to be made as to which items can be salvaged and cleaned and which ones will need to be discarded.

Floodwater may carry silt, raw sewage, oil or chemical wastes that can cause a whole range of bacterial, viral and/or parasitic diseases. That’s why proper clean-up methods are critical, requiring disinfecting, not just cleaning. Check with local authorities to determine how to dispose of household items that have been contaminated by sewage or that have been wet for an extended period of time. Some localities may have regulations and specific procedures for bagging, tagging and disposing of contaminated items. Consider all water unsafe until you have checked with your local health department. This includes water used for drinking, cooking and cleaning. Additional resources are available from the EPA, CDC and HUD.

Important Steps in the Clean-up Process

  • Take photos of your damage before you begin clean-up.
  • Wear protective clothing including long-sleeved shirts, long pants, rubber or plastic gloves and waterproof boots or shoes.
  • Take anything that was wet for two days or more outside. These items could have mold growing on them even though you may not see it.
  • Throw out any items that absorb water and cannot be cleaned or disinfected (mattresses, carpeting, stuffed animals, etc.).
  • Remove and discard items made of cloth if you are unable to wash in hot water.
  • Bleach should be used to clean floors, stoves, sinks, certain dishes and countertops. Do not use more than one cup of bleach per gallon of water. Remember to never mix bleach with ammonia or other cleaners.
  • Launder your flood-soiled fabrics when it is safe to do so (water is back on and safe to use, electricity is restored, washing machine has been checked for damage, etc.).

Here are some tips for cleaning surfaces and items that have been soiled in a flood:

Food Stuffs

Throw away fresh foods and pantry-type foods that have come in direct contact with the water. This includes unopened foods in glass containers, such as mayonnaise and salad dressing, and canned foods. Food in glass containers may look safe, but there is currently no lid in use that will keep out water if the container has come in contact with floodwaters. Canned-goods containers may develop rust. Paper labels on both glass and can containers can be magnets for bacteria and other contaminants in floodwaters. Also dispose of containers with cork-lined or waxed cardboard tops, pop-tops, peel-off tops or paraffin seals; food in cardboard boxes; flexible containers, including cloth, paper, foil and cellophane; canned goods; staples stored in canisters; and any unopened containers.

Kitchen Surfaces

Kitchen counters, pantry shelves, refrigerators, stoves, dishes and glassware that have come in contact with water should be thoroughly washed with warm water and soap, rinsed and then disinfected. To disinfect, use a solution of ¾ cup of liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Keep the surfaces wet for two minutes, then rinse with clean water.Wood and plastic items, including cutting boards, utensils and food storage containers, that have been in contact with contaminated water should be discarded because they may harbor bacteria, which makes them difficult to clean and disinfect.


Wet textiles are the perfect breeding ground for mold and mildew. As soon as the floodwaters recede and the water has been removed, the next priority is to clean clothes and other water-soaked fabrics. Before you begin, please check with your local health department to ensure water used for cleaning is now safe for use.

Although your first instinct may be to wash these items in very hot water, high water temperatures may set any stains that have developed. Here are steps you should follow instead: 

SCRAPE AND SHAKE dirt and residue from fabrics, then rinse or wash as soon as possible to help prevent the growth of mildew. While doing this, it's a good idea to wear rubber gloves and a dust mask to avoid exposure to heavily contaminated soils.

PREWASH fabrics in cool water using powdered laundry detergent. These detergents are effective on clay and ground-in dirt.

  • Some washers have a prewash cycle that includes a short soak period; the machine may automatically advance to the regular wash. Refer to the machine instruction manual to see how to set your washer for the automatic prewash cycle or how to manually set the controls to agitate and then spin.
  • Use small loads with a full water level.
  • To help remove protein stains, such as sewage, grass or blood, add an enzyme presoak product to the prewash.
  • Measure detergent into the washer, then add water and allow detergent to thoroughly dissolve before adding clothes.
  • Allow clothes to rinse and spin dry. At this point, do not dry in the dryer.

PRETREAT heavy soils with a prewash soil and stain remover or an enzyme presoak product; follow label directions.

  • A prewash soil and stain remover works well on oil-based stains like animal fats, body soils, cooking oils, cosmetics and motor oils
  • An enzyme presoak works well on protein stains like blood, body fluids and grass.

WASH garments using small loads and a full water level. Do not overload washer.

  • Use the hottest water safe for fabrics being washed.
  • Use a powdered laundry detergent (a powdered detergent is effective in removing clay and ground in dirt), adding slightly more detergent than recommended on the package.
  • Since clothing may have been contaminated with sewage, it is important to add a disinfectant* to the wash. Use liquid household bleach (sodium hypochlorite), following label directions. (Note: If there is a large amount of iron in soil deposits or in the water, liquid household bleach can cause rust stains to appear on fabrics. Also, check garment labels before laundering; some fabrics cannot be washed using liquid household bleach.)
  • If liquid household bleach is not recommended, a color-safe (oxygen) bleach will also help remove stains and odors and will not set rust stains. Some detergents have color-safe bleach or bleach alternative built into the product. However, remember that these products do not disinfect.
  • Other products sanitize and control odors. Follow label directions for proper use in the laundry.

IF there are rust or rust-colored stains on fabrics, use a commercially prepared rust remover to help remove them. Look for these products in the laundry or fabric dye section of the supermarket. They are generally intended to be used on white or colorfast fabrics. Because they can cause color removal, follow package directions and test first on a small, inconspicuous area of the garment before using. IF fabrics have been wet for any length of time, mildew might appear. Launder stained items using liquid household bleach if safe for fabric. Or, soak in oxygen bleach and hot water, then launder. Mildew is difficult to remove, and badly mildewed fabrics may be damaged beyond repair.

CONTINUE TO WASH as many times as needed. The condition of the rinse water is a good indication of whether or not the clothes are clean. If the water is dirty or cloudy, the clothes should be washed again. 

Do not put clothes in the dryer until you are satisfied with the results. The heat from the dryer can set stains, making them impossible to remove.