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Drying Out Your Wet, Soggy House After El Nino


While "Titanic" was cruising into the movie record books, many El Nino-weary Californians were awash in troubles of their own. Now, even though the wet weather may be retreating, lessons in storm preparation have sunk in for years to come.

Southlanders, unlike those aboard the Titanic, had plenty of warning of the peril, but many still found themselves with soggy carpets, warped and swollen wooden underpinnings, mold and mildew.

How do you deal with the water damage? What steps can you take to prevent a repeat? Here's what some experts suggest:

With Wet Floors, Time Is Critical

Time is of the essence, especially if the floors are hardwood, said Marsha Cohen, owner of Pride of L.A., a water-damage recovery specialist in the San Fernando Valley.

The water has to be removed within two hours, she said, adding that a wet hardwood floor will begin to buckle within a few hours. Once the floor warps, it eventually needs to be replaced.

Get everything off the floor, including furniture, carpets and padding. If there's mud damage, the carpeting is usually unsalvageable, she said.

Within the first 12 hours, furniture legs will be damaged by the wetness, Cohen said. Homeowners should try to put some kind of blocking, telephone books or old newspapers, for example, under the legs to get them off the wet carpet.

If the carpeting is just damp, use a shop vacuum to suck up as much water as possible, then pull up the carpet and its padding so that everything dries thoroughly.

Cohen warned, though, that the motors may burn out because some home-grade vacuums aren't engineered for such heavy-duty use.

"Wet carpet in itself depends on weather. If it sits too long in wet conditions, within a day or two they're going to get a bad smell because they're going to have bacteria growing. You don't want to let it wait any longer under any circumstances."

Then there are the cases best left to professionals.

"If it's 'squish, squish, squish' when you walk on the carpet ,then a shop vacuum's not going to cut it," Cohen said. To get rid of the excess water "you need a high-vacuum extractor and that generally means it's done with a truck-mounted unit."

She says that if a typical shop vacuum is rated "1" in performance, a truck-mounted extractor is a "1,000." Even the portable units used on multistory buildings are 100 times as powerful as the consumer-grade shop vacuum.

The next step is drying the carpet and padding with professional air movers and dehumidifiers.

The blowers are positioned to allow carpet and padding to billow up, causing moisture to come out of the carpet, where it is then captured by the dehumidifier instead of redepositing itself in the home.

Typically, a 20-by-20-foot room needs one dehumidifier running for 48 hours. Although prices vary widely, Cohen said the entire operation--water extraction, drying, cleaning and resetting the carpet--would cost about $700.

How Did the Disaster Happen in First Place?

After the immediate crisis has been addressed, it's time to identify how the house came to be vulnerable. In all too many cases, the homeowner (or former owners) need only look in the mirror.

Dave Keim, of the Los Angeles Department of Building & Safety, explained:

"Older homes rarely suffer drainage problems because they were built on crawl spaces. But today's dwellings are on concrete slab foundations.

"Residential code requires that the finished floor surface of habitable rooms be at least 6 inches above the adjacent outside grade.

"Landscaping--patios, planting areas that get filled with dirt over the years--often nibbles away at that clearance."

And it's not just uncontrolled runoff. Keim said that when the ground reaches its saturation point, the rising water table makes the state-required distance between grade--the ground outside the home--and the inside floor absolutely crucial.

If there's a problem with clearance and water invasion, the petroleum-based sealers that consumers will encounter are only stopgap measures.

The long-term solution, and, in many cases, the only practical answer, according to Keim, is to cut drainage channels along outside-facing rooms and cover them with grates.

He also urges that the work be done by a state-licensed landscape architect, not just a licensed landscaper.

In any case, El Nin~o has made a "bestseller" out of a city booklet titled "Be Prepared: Homeowners Guide for Flood, Storm Debris and Erosion Control."

Last year, 10,000 copies were distributed. This year 150,000 have already been delivered. Call (213) 580-1133 to request a copy of the free booklet.

Your Home May Need a New 'Raincoat'

Once things appear to be dry, it's wise to look deeper for water-prone weaknesses.

Just because the building may be on a crawl space doesn't mean the owners are home free, said John Bourget of Bourget Brothers Building Materials.

Many of the Santa Monica company's customers are in hillside areas such as Brentwood and Bel-Air.

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