Friday, March 8, 2013

How to Muck and Gut a Home

There's no heat in a flood-damaged house, so you'll generally dress for the outdoors. Khaki pants that tie off at the bottom, full of pockets full of detritus. Americorps gray sweatshirt over a gray shirt, and possibly a black old-school coat over that. Black steel-toed boots, scraped and scuffed, on the bottom. Over this goes a white (or blue, or gray) painter's suit that isn't supposed to rip but does anyway, usually along the crotch. Tuck the sleeves into your white painters' gloves with orange palms. There's a respirator going over the ears with ridiculous pink air filters sticking out like alien mouthparts, and a high-school-science-class clear plastic eye mask, usually scratched up and dirty. While you're working, this will fog up with your own perspiration and make it nearly impossible to see; instead of a basement or a first floor, you'll be in some strange twilight simulacrum of a half-world where your entire vision narrows onto one tiny point in front of you. Welcome to the muck-and-gut. 

Mucking and gutting, for the non-Americorpsers in the audience, is what happens after enough water to fill your entire town five feet deep decides that it is no longer content in the ocean/sea/lake/river/clouds and would like to come over for a drink and a dance. After the flood comes an immense amount of mold, and there is really no way to rid a flooded basement of mold other than tearing the living shit out of the walls. The drywall has to go. The insulation has to go. The carpeting typically has to go. Any records, books, newspapers, dolls, tablecloths, anything paper or cloth (or sometimes wood, other than walls) has to go unless the owner really, really wants to keep them. And heaven help you if there's any food down there; my last muck-and-gut had a stench of rotted-egg sulfur so foul and malodorous you could breathe it at the German Army and kick them out of France. Getting all this crud out of the basement and stripping it down to the boards are where Americorps, or any other disaster volunteer group, comes in. During times when work is lean and office-y and unsatisfying, a good muck-and-gut or two over the weekend can get you just jazzed enough to make it through another week of filing the FEMA equivalent of TPS reports.

So now you're down in somebody's poor, ravaged basement (or, if they don't have one of those, the first floor). The first thing is to clear the room, and this is an awful job. Basements are where all the shit that nobody wants to look at collects, unless it's where all their most valuable things are, which is even worse. My first muck-and-gut saw us carrying out CDs, auto parts and tools, a gigantic wall-mounted mirror (it had mold all over the backing), records, a toolbox that was brimming over with floodwater, school pictures, fake costume jewelery... it all gets buried in jumbo-size black plastic garbage bags and plopped on the side of the road for the overworked sanitation trucks. The first time I did this, the mounds of bags and siding and fallen branches were easily three to four feet high and stretched a good twelve feet horizontally along the sidewalk. Once you've cleared all this junk out, you get to haul out the tools and inflict some major damage on the unsuspecting house.

Yes, it's time to tear into the walls, and this is by far the fun part. Office work got ya down? Sitting on your hands instead of helping survivors? Here's a crowbar. Here's a sledgehammer. There's a wall. Go kill it. Every bit of infected drywall has to go; the longer you wait to tear it out, the more it'll mold and the higher the mold will get. Tear out the insulation behind in huge patchy fistfuls. This is one of the more surreal experiences I've had in FEMA Corps; you and your comrades are unrecognizable behind masks and respirators and suits, a bunch of astronauts blundering around some darkened moonbase and looking for the keys that somebody dropped. Your own little piece of the basement becomes your entire world. One wall, one windowsill, one section of insulation. The pores in your mask are supposed to let hot air out, but they're old and the mask is broken and they don't, so it just builds and builds until you're seeing everything through this gray sheen of sweat and panting and sheer effort. There's a savage pleasure in reaching into a hole, grabbing the edge of the drywall and just ripping chunks and whole sections away from the wall. You pull and rip and whack and sweat until there's no more to be had.

You have to pay for it, of course. Every bit of rubble has to be bagged and carted outside. The floor is shoveled clear, then swept, then swept again. If there are tiles on the floor, they have to come up; some, with water under them, will yield with little fuss. Others will take five solid minutes of cursing and hacking with a pry-bar until the last fragments are off the bare concrete. Extraneous screws and nails that used to hold something important have to be yanked out of the wall and collected. Any cabinets or other furniture that had the temerity to be down here have to be carted out; once, I was working next to a wall-mounted cabinet on one side of a wall, and a couple of my colleagues were bludgeoning away on the other side. The sonofabitch fell out and down with an almighty crash, missing my legs and my friend's legs by a few inches. Once the swearing was over, it went out the door with everything else. I spent my last half-an-hour of another muck-and-gut scratching away at a foot-wide patch of grout on the floor that had to be gotten up. Why? Perfectionism, that's why, which is a horrible philosophy in muck-and-gutting. 

Once you've cleared the basement and/or first floor, your job is pretty much done. I'm assuming the next step is to bleach the whole mess of exposed wall, just to make sure, before the contractors come in to replace insulation and drywall and fiddle with the electrical outlets if they feel like getting zapped. Muck-and-gutters provide the brute labor. By the end of a session, your spotless white oversuit will be filthy around the feet where you've probably been dragging the tails through all kinds of mud and muck and mold-covered crap, and ripped in a dozen places from chance encounters with a nail or bending down too far or simply subjecting fragile seams to indelicate amounts of force. (It invariably rips at the crotch, is what I'm implying here.) Everybody peels off their outer layer with varying degrees of grossness and/or hilarity, throws them into the trash and piles into the van to head back to our housing, exhausted and satisfied. The only drawback is that you can't do it every day.


Sabrina Benson said...

Disappointing as it is, but these are the usual problems flood can do to a building and its residents. It's sad to know that is how huge the damage was that you had to tear the walls down. But in cases like this, you are left without a choice but to do it and remove the mold to prevent more of it from growing. Thanks for sharing your experience with us! I hope you get to use the proper safety gear on your next housing project. Sabrina Benson @

Launce Newlove said...

One of the things that need a thorough cleanup after getting flooded is your HVAC system, as it could spell your success or defeat in your fight against mold infestation. Having a dehumidifier also helps, provided that it didn’t get soaked in the flood as well. Maintaining a healthy indoor air is a priority in these situation, as well as getting rid of all possible sources of mold, as stated in your post.


Kim Ok said...

I agree; tearing the walls off is the best part in a demo-reno project, especially if you’re doing it by hand. Almost makes the hauling afterwards worth it. And as much as possible, I try to avoid the basement on such projects, as the air is usually muggy and there’s a big chance that there’s mold everywhere. While I don’t like to make that generalization, it is most often the case after a huge flood, as ventilation systems are usually the first ones to be compromised in such situations, if they have any down there, that is.


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