January 17, 2013 / 9:17 PM / 5 years ago

After a disaster, what to save and what to toss

NEW YORK (Reuters) - My first impulse was: Throw it all out.

When we first started the clean-up of our home after Superstorm Sandy last October, I wanted everything that had been coated in that mix of mud, sand, salt water and raw sewage out of my house. And that's exactly what I did, one big black trash bag at a time. (For an accompanying video, see link.reuters.com/nyf64t).

Hindsight has taught an important lesson. Whether you’re dealing with water damage or simply doing a new-year clean-out of your garage or basement, stuff falls into not one “trash it” pile, but rather three categories -- salvage, throw out or replace.

Some items are destined for nowhere but the garbage pile. Others, with a little forethought and TLC, can be restored. And then there’s stuff you realize you don’t really need anyway.

Some Can be Salvaged

One of the victims of Sandy flood waters inundating our home in the Rockaways, in New York’s Queens borough, was my children’s toy closet. In there sat my son’s beloved collection of Thomas the Train Legos. When I saw the giant plastic bin filled to the brim with Sandy sewage, my heart ached for my train-loving 5-year-old. He’d been playing with those tracks nearly daily since he was 2, which is quite a lifespan for a kid’s toy.

“Throw it out,” I told my husband. “We’ll get new ones.”

My husband couldn’t do it, and, thankfully, he didn‘t. Turns out that any non-porous surface, such as plastic or glass, can safely be cleaned with bleach and reused. This includes any glass baking dishes or plastic mixing bowls, all filled with Sandy water in my kitchen cupboards.

Photographs, too, even ones sopping wet, can be saved if rescued before mold sets in and the paper itself starts to disintegrate. We lost many photo albums to the storm and the ones that hit me hardest were pictures taken long ago with film, when there was no software backup for our most precious moments.

We grabbed the stacks of photos, pulled them out of their albums and set them to dry. They’re warped but they’ve been saved. We will have them all digitally scanned and archived so we never have such worries again.

Losing items of sentimental value stings the most. But there are practical items that we threw out and later learned could have been salvaged.

Our toilet, for instance, sustained some damage to the flushing mechanism from the surge of water. It could have been repaired instead of being thrown out.

As we were pulling up carpet, we hauled all of our furniture out to the backyard, including our wooden dining room set. We feared it, too, was a goner. The seats were soaked through and the legs submerged for hours in salt water. We held onto them nonetheless, and I‘m glad we did.

Mold expert Robert Weisz, CEO of RTK Environmental in Stanford, Connecticut, says anything “soft” that comes into contact with water must be destroyed because it can never be sufficiently dried out to prevent mold growth. So the seat cushions have to go.

But wooden furniture can sometimes be saved, he says, if you are able to clean it within 24 hours before mold takes root in the surface of the wood.

Throw It Out

Some things have to go and just aren’t worth replacing -- the kids’ stuffed animal collection, which was too large to begin with; books I’d never had a chance to read and that had swelled to twice their size from Sandy’s dousing.

A disaster also makes you realize: Did I really need six cookie sheets? Is a grill pan really necessary if you only use it those two days a year that it’s really too cold to use the barbecue? And the waffle maker - I had one of those?

Replace It

Salt water wreaks havoc on electrical systems, but its impact might not be seen right away. Several of my neighbors were able to get their furnaces and hot water heaters to turn on after the storm.

“People say, ‘I turned it on and it works so it must be OK,'” Weisz says. But salt water eats away at metal, significantly shortening an appliance’s lifespan. “In a short period of time, it’s not going to work anymore.”

The heating system, crucial to our ability to move back home, was one of the first items we replaced after the storm.

The carpet didn’t stand a chance. It could never be sufficiently dried out. Ceramic tile on a concrete slab is the only flooring that will survive a flood, Weisz says. But when thinking about a material to replace your flooring, hardwood is what will be best for your resale value.

“Hardwood floors are a great seller,” says Louisa Sagarese, broker office manager for ERA American Towne Realty, in Toms River, New Jersey. “So are nice kitchen cabinets and granite countertops. Focus on kitchens and bathrooms and make closets bigger if you can.”

Sandy forced us into a remodeling project, and we’re trying to turn a disaster into an opportunity. Since our main living area was knocked down to the studs, we combined two closets into one, big walk-in closet. We also made a new closet out of unused space under a staircase.

We’re opting for hardwood floors, and we’ll choose stainless steel appliances - another factor that Sagarese says adds to resale.

But as Sagarese notes so accurately, we storm victims are not building for resale. “Think about what you want for the next 10 years,” she says.

Most of us aren’t going anywhere. Living by the water is something like a calling. So we’re laying down hardwood floors. We’re installing new molding. But our next TV will be hanging on the wall. My photo albums will all be kept upstairs from now on.

And if and when another storm rolls through, we’ll know better and haul our furniture to the second floor before evacuating.

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Follow us @ReutersMoney or here; Editing by Lauren Young and Dan Grebler

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