Memories and muck

Updated 8:50 AM ET, Sat September 30, 2017

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(CNN)It's not just a house. It's the place a toddler took his first wobbly steps and where a teenager, under the porch light, had her first kiss. It's where birthday candles were blown out and countless hours spent planning for the future.

And now, it's a sodden heap of decay. A balance-sheet liability. And it's one of tens of thousands of properties just like it devastated by disastrous floods, wind and rain swept in by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
First among the many steps of rebuilding is gutting this house -- hauling out every potentially poisonous artifact of a once-stable life. It's a disgusting, sometimes dangerous job that experts say is best done by professionals. But that's expensive, and when entire communities lie in ruins, there are never enough contractors to do the work.
So, relatives and neighbors and faith-group volunteers join forces to get it done sooner than later, before the damage worsens. And with each whack comes the realization that some lives won't ever be the same.
A survivor contemplates property damage in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria.

STEP 1:
Rounding up volunteers and supplies

Gutting a badly inundated, 1,500-square-foot house packed with stuff is likely to take 12 workers about three days, said Kevin Fitzpatrick, who managed the clearing-out and internal demolition of dozens of homes after Hurricane Katrina for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Manpower, tools and gear could come free -- or cost hundreds of dollars or more.
Before they start, they all need tetanus shots, goggles, hats, boots, gloves and masks certified to block mold spores, he said. They need crowbars and push brooms, plus hammers to yank every tiny nail from the studs, snow shovels to scoop up the detritus and wheelbarrows to cart it away.
    Even after cracking the windows, the swampy stench of rotting wood, spoiling food and budding mold could drive even eager helpers right back out the door.
    Houston residents in the Lakewood neighborhood return home to begin rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey.

    STEP 2:
    Deciding what stays and what goes

    Everything inside this house -- socks, couches, detergent bottles, the refrigerator and its contents, dog toys, televisions, forks and spoons, dressers, cereal boxes, wedding albums and baby books, LEGO sets, the piano -- may have to go.
    What to save often depends on what items are made of and how long they festered in these hot, drenched rooms. Stuffed animals, books and clothes that touched the toxic stew often aren't safe to keep. Soap and water usually suffice to clean hard items, like glassware and plastic, though some gutting veterans prefer hot water mixed with chlorine bleach or with baking soda.
    Objects big and small must be assessed:

    Clothes

    Clothes can be laundered or dry-cleaned, if they didn't soak in toxic chemicals.

    Mementos

    Porous items like paper and soft toys likely can't be saved. Nonporous items should be cleaned with soap or all-purpose cleaner.

    Hard household items

    Nonporous metal, glass and hard plastic items can be cleaned, though some won't want to cook with these again.

    Hazardous items

    Cleaners, oil, light bulbs, batteries and other such waste must be labeled, double-bagged and discarded per government rules.

    Electronics

    Electronics may be recycled. They should be labeled, double-bagged and disposed of properly.

    Appliances

    Appliances that flooded or sat in saltwater should be discarded. Doors should be taped shut.

    STEP 3:
    Staying strong

    Aside from the work being filthy and tedious, sorting through all these things can beget fresh anguish for someone who just survived a disaster.
    "That triage is emotional," said Sarah McDonald, whose family home in suburban LaPlace, Louisiana, flooded in 2012 in Hurricane Isaac. "My mom broke down over throwing away kitchen pots and pans because that's what she had made her family's meals with for years."
    Sometimes, it's just too much; survivors quit trying. After flooding last year in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, volunteer Sara Johansen crawled under a stranger's staircase to rescue a white ceramic Christmas tree.
      "Here's this one thing," she said, "the one thing that can help them get through it."
      An Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association member removes flood-damaged drywall from a home in Houston's Westbury neighborhood.

      STEP 4:
      Demolishing

      After a house is emptied, its contents piled in a heap at the curb, demo can begin. It's another tough task, perhaps less sensitive than discarding mementos but hardly easier. And because nature took a swipe first, this job isn't like it looks on HGTV, McDonald said.
      Turn off utilities so a careless mallet swing doesn't usher in a fresh mess -- or worse. Sand or mud, if it seeped in, has got to be cleared, ideally before it hardens into a thick, dusty cake. Wet carpets and pads -- all immensely heavy -- must be torn out, along with wood floors, which might have warped into ribbons 4 feet high.
      Drywall, cabinets and insulation must be cut out several inches above the visible mold line; sometimes, the ceiling has to go, along with electrical wires and pipes. And every surface underneath should be disinfected to prevent fungus, bacteria and other toxins from growing back.
      After all this grueling work, a home may well end up stripped to its bones:

      Roof

      Holes have to be covered with tarp to prevent more damage. Decking, chimneys, vents and walls should be checked for failures.

      Carpet/rugs

      Wet carpet, rugs and padding should be torn out, and wrapped in plastic if they touched lead, asbestos or chemicals.

      Floorboards

      Flooring warped by water and nails must be torn out. Walls should be checked for structural stability.

      Walls/insulation/studs

      Wet walls and insulation should be removed well above visible damage. A check for asbestos and lead paint should be done, and studs disinfected.

      Water pipes

      Water service has to be turned off. Pipes that bathed in saltwater or shifted may have to be replaced.

      Electrical wires / fixtures

      A certified electrician should handle downed wires and power junctions.

      STEP 5:
      Stepping back

      Seeing a house like that can be numbing. But it also can be liberating -- a baptism, of sorts, for life after the disaster.
      "This was cathartic, in its way. It was almost like a coming together for a funeral," recalled John McCusker, whose colleagues helped him gut his home after Katrina.
      "This was clearly an end of something, but it was also the first acknowledgment that life was going to go on," he said. "It was the first time we really felt like that: I've cried enough, and we're going to step forward now."
      Florentina Amaya, 71, contemplates the mold growing inside her Houston home in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.