Safety officials said Oklahomans returning to their tornado-damaged homes in the next few days should be aware that entering a disaster-site after the fact still carries a host of potential dangers.
“Even though you’re coming back to what’s left of your own home,” Ray Ridlen said, Horticulture and Agriculture Educator at the Oklahoma County OSU Cooperative Extension Service. "There are still plenty of hazards that can cause serious injury.”
For instance, walls left standing in a home may be highly unstable, Ridlen pointed out, or what looks like simple debris may be covering exposed electrical wires or broken gas lines.
"Anyone returning to a damaged home for initial clean-up needs to be extremely cautious and careful,” Ridlen explained. “Expect the site to be hazardous before you go in.”
As local authorities allow area residents to return to their homes, many who first thought their homes had suffered only minimal damage may find that the devastation is much more extensive and their home site a potential danger to anyone involved with the cleanup.
“People naturally want to get back into their homes as soon as possible and begin cleanup,” stated LaDonna Dunlop, Director for the Oklahoma County OSU Cooperative Extension Service. “But research has indicated that a great many injuries associated with tornadoes actually occur during post-tornado activities like search and rescue and the initial cleanup.”
The first rule of thumb before entering any home, Dunlop indicated, is to check the exterior closely for any damage to the foundation, roof, chimney or windows, since these can indicate safety issues inside.
Also, residents are encouraged to look for downed electrical wires, even if there is no electricity to the home at that time, listen for blowing or hissing sounds that may indicate a gas leak and check their sense of smell for a possible gas leak or spill of hazardous materials.
In addition, here is a list of other precautions that can help keep residents safe during post-tornado cleanup:
- Always cooperate fully with local authorities, rescue squads and the American Red Cross. Remember that your welfare and the continued safety of others is always their uppermost concern.
- Walk or drive carefully through debris-filled areas as you are returning home. Try to avoid walking across debris by going around it if possible. Nails and splinters in the debris or even shifting materials beneath your feet can easily cause injury during cleanup.
- Be extremely careful going into a home that is only partially standing or into a damaged home where electrical service is still operating. You may decide that your home needs to be inspected by a professional before anyone actually enters.
- Always wear protective clothing on your arms, legs, feet and hands during cleanup. This includes sturdy boots and gloves.
- Don’t return to a damaged home at night. Authorities usually set a curfew, even for homeowners, because trying to do cleanup at night can be much more hazardous than during the daytime.
- Keep young children away from tornado-damaged areas, at least until you have initially gauged how safe your home is. If children are with you during the cleanup, never leave them unattended or allow them to play in the debris.
- Use flashlights inside a damaged home without electricity. Lanterns, candles or other flame-based lights can multiply hazards when used in a heavily damaged area.
- Make sure that the gas supply is turned off at the main valve in your home. If possible, also turn off all electrical power to your house from the main fuse box or circuit breaker even if you do not have electricity, since it could be restored at any time and damaged wiring could cause extreme hazards.
- Watch out for displaced animals, especially poisonous snakes in more rural areas. Tornadoes destroy the habitats of wildlife as well as humans so be on the alert for injured and potentially dangerous wildlife.
- Do not drink the water in your home unless health authorities have declared it to be safe. This is especially true if you are in an area without electricity or other utilities.
- Check with your homeowners insurance before beginning an extensive cleanup. Trying to recover valuables like photos or personal mementos should not be a problem, but be sure to contact your insurance carriers before you do anything more so they can get the information they need to file your claim first.