Campus News

UK specialists offer flood clean-up strategies

Flooding in Whitesburg, Letcher County. Photo by Shad Baker, UK extension agent for agriculture and natural resources.
Flooding in Whitesburg, Letcher County. Photo by Shad Baker, UK extension agent for agriculture and natural resources.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug. 3, 2022) — Historic flooding, up to a foot of rainfall in some of the hardest-hit areas, has left many Kentuckians wondering what to do with their waterlogged furniture, clothes and appliances. Cleaning up these items can seem like a daunting task. A University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension specialist offered advice to help with the overwhelming process.

“Once you have determined what items are salvageable, it is important that you disinfect and clean your flood-soiled clothing as soon as it is safe to do so, and you have the resources,” said Jeanne Badgett, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment extension associate for clothing and textiles, and household equipment. “Otherwise, items may begin to mildew and can become damaged beyond repair.”

Flood water can contain harmful bacteria, like sewage waste. Cleaning damaged clothes with normal laundry detergent and water will not kill bacteria from flood water, which can remain in fabrics. Avoid mixing flood-soiled clothes with uncontaminated clothes to lessen the spread of dangerous bacteria and keep clean clothes sanitary.

“When handling flood-soiled clothing, wear rubber gloves and protective clothing, if possible,” Badgett said. “Be sure to clean surfaces where flood-soiled clothes have been stacked.”

She said to check the label before laundering to determine if items are washable or dry-clean only. Some clothing labeled as "dry-clean only" may be able to be laundered. When possible, take clothing that requires dry-cleaning to a professional dry cleaner. Steam pressing at 325 degrees Fahrenheit will kill bacteria.

“If you can’t launder the items right away, shake out or brush off excess soil outdoors and rinse items several times in cool water; then air dry,” Badgett added.

She emphasized that using a disinfectant and hot water in the washing machine can effectively kill bacteria. An inexpensive, fairly accessible disinfectant is liquid chlorine bleach. The fiber content and color of the clothing determine if bleach can be used and the amount. To sanitize clothing, 2 tablespoons of liquid chlorine bleach per washer load effectively kills bacteria without ruining clothes even if chlorine bleach is not suitable for that particular clothing fiber.

After thoroughly washing and rinsing clothes, the next step is drying them. Drying clothes in a dryer kills more bacteria than hanging them outside on a clothesline. Make sure to disinfect the clothes’ storage area so bacteria will not get on clean clothes.

In addition to clothing, Kentuckians may be able to salvage some household furnishings, however, they will need to thoroughly disinfect all fabrics and surfaces and protect against mildew. Carefully consider the condition of each piece, its sentimental or monetary value and whether it can be safely disinfected without further damage.

“Upholstered furniture that has been in flood water may be impossible to save if it has been soaked,” Badgett explained. “If you decide to try to salvage an upholstered piece, strip the fabric, padding and springs from the frame. Disinfect the wood frame using one of the following three techniques. Wash it with a solution of 3/4 cup bleach to 1 gallon of water; spray it with a phenol product (such as Lysol) following directions on the label; or brush it with an undiluted pine oil disinfectant. Then place the frame in a well-ventilated location so that it can dry out slowly. Don’t put it out in the sun. It will dry out too quickly, and the wood will warp and twist.”

Badgett said mildew may grow on the wood frame until the moisture content of the wood drops to 20% or less. She recommends periodically cleaning off the mildew, using one of the disinfectants mentioned above. After the frame dries out, owners can make any needed repairs and re-glue any loose joints.

Springs may or may not be salvageable depending upon the type and how they are attached to the frame. Badgett said to consult an upholsterer to determine replacement cost versus restoring of springs. Fabrics and padding should be replaced.

“Draperies and curtains may have problems due to floodwaters,” Badgett continued. “Problems with color change, bleeding of dyes, shrinkage and permanent watermarks are common. Mildew will be a problem if window treatments were in the water or in a damp environment for a few days. Disinfectants used to kill the mildew may also affect fabric color and finish.”

Badgett said shades, aluminum, vinyl or wood blinds, and vinyl or wood shutters may not be salvageable. Metals and metal parts corrode, wood may swell and warp and owners may not be able to clean and sanitize the cloth tapes and cords without further damage.

“It’s best to throw out any innerspring mattress or box spring that was partially or totally submerged in floodwater contaminated with sewage, pesticides, and industrial chemicals, etc.,” she said. “You may need to throw out mattresses even if the floodwater was not contaminated because it is almost impossible to dry mattresses thoroughly before mold begins to grow.”

Throw out pillows that came in contact with contaminated floodwater since it is difficult to remove all the dirt and silt from the fabric and filling, and it’s almost impossible to thoroughly disinfect them.

Although flood victims can sometimes save clothes and furnishings, in most cases, they can’t salvage appliances that were covered in polluted flood water.

Badgett said one problem is that appliances have many hidden wires and parts located inside the outer covering. She said to take extreme care when removing these items from a flooded home since there is still a risk of electrical shock. Many appliances like television sets and radios contain internal parts that store electricity even when the item is unplugged.

“It is almost impossible to decontaminate the appliance and clean it up,” she said. “Another problem is that appliances have metal wires that can get corroded when they get wet and stand in water. The electrical connections might be corroded or even come loose.”

These conditions can render appliances useless or dangerous to operate.

“It just really isn’t safe to reuse an appliance after it has been standing in flood water,” Badgett emphasized. “If you have a question, ask a licensed or certified appliance repair professional to inspect the appliance before using it. Most of the time, it is better to discard them and purchase new appliances.”

Another thing Badgett stressed is that many appliances, especially older freezers and refrigerators, have fiberglass insulation. Once the insulation is waterlogged, it is useless.

For more Kentucky flood recovery resources, visit

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