The Sydney Morning Herald

By Glenda Kwek

Cleaning up after a flood is a long, drawn-out process, as Marilyn Peacock will tell you.Get professionals to check if your home safe

Don't take shortcuts on drying walls

Be mindful of mould danger

Replacement usually cheaper than restoration

The 69-year-old's home in the Brisbane suburb of Yeronga was inundated by floodwaters in 1974 and again this year - although not as severely.

Yet 36 years after ripping out walls and cupboards and stripping away carpets, evidence of that first flood is still in Ms Peacock's house.

"My husband was very particular," Ms Peacock said about the thorough manner in which the couple set about restoring their home after it was swamped by a metre of water.

"But if we took the fibro out of the house today, I'm sure there'll still be mud between the walls from 1974."

Engineers, architects and homeowners like Ms Peacock said they had simple but important advice for people whose homes were affected by floodwaters - let things dry and keep them dry.

Brian Seidler, the executive director of the Master Builders Association of NSW, said the first step was to get a professional assessment by insurers, structural engineers and builders.

"Will it be safe to go back into your home and structurally will it be safe?" he asked, warning that rushing back to reoccupy your home immediately after floodwaters subside would not be the right move.

"There could be a lot of structural damage done to the footings where water has washed away the surrounding earth.

"Carpets, once saturated, are almost unusable. If there is insulation - how are you going to dry that out? It might be cheaper to rip it out ... the cost of restoration is always more expensive."

Ian Agnew, whose organisation Archicentre advises the Australian Institute of Architects on building and design, said the next step for homeowners after they cleaned out the mud from their properties was the "drying process".

Drying out walls inside and outside a house could take up to a year and would be essential if you wanted to avoid termites and other vermin.

"If timbers are not given a chance to fully dry out and they are repainted or relined, then you are trapping the moisture in the wall, and you are only going to have problems with timber rot and with the infestation of termites," Mr Agnew said.

"Termites feed on moist timber, so you are just inviting them to come into your home."

The presence of mould should not be taken lightly either.

Professor Edward Blakely, who served as New Orleans' "recovery tsar" after the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said the presence of mould in homes could be fatal for those who breathe it in.

"[Mould] doesn't take long to develop, particularly in hot weather. Mould spores will start growing almost immediately and they will be all over the place - but you need to get rid of them," said the urban planning and disaster recovery expert, who is currently an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre.

"If a person is in a house with mould and if they start breathing in that mould, they can die, particularly in hot weather. ... It's very dangerous, particularly for seniors."

Ms Peacock is familiar with the drying process.

Her carpet was soaked during the 1974 floods and with the help of her neighbours, it was stripped off the floor, loaded onto a truck and laid out on the roof of a nearby public swimming pool complex.

"I don't know how they carried it. You can imagine the weight!" she said, laughing. "They put it up on the roof and left it. We thought we would never see it again."

But the drastic measure worked and one month later, Ms Peacock's carpet was dry and she was able to re-lay it again in her house.

She and her husband also waited 11 months for their house's exterior walls to dry out before repainting them, and spent weeks cleaning out mud and other dirt trapped in their ceilings and between the walls.

Yet waiting for the house to dry out does have its benefits, Mr Agnew said.

Homeowners can think about changing the materials they use in their houses to ones that would be less susceptible to water damage, or even consider altering the layout of their property if it was badly wrecked.

"In many aspects you've got the opportunities to not make the mistakes of the past," he said.

Doors and windows could be moved to new spots in the house, rooms rearranged and termite inspection points created. People could use manmade materials instead of timber for their wall sheetings.

"Some of the new stuff coming up - the fibrous materials aren't as porous as timber," he said. "There are other materials that are man-made that may be less susceptible to water damage.

"You've also got the opportunity to look at the sustainability and energy efficiency of the home. You can refit your home with more energy-efficient insulation in the roof and in the walls, and install more energy-efficient air-conditioning units."