Oh No… The Basement Flooded!!! Now What?

Dealing with Wet and Water Damaged Paper Records

We originally posted this page right after Hurricane Sandy.
The information is still valid, whether your flood came from a storm or a burst pipe:

On the one hand, we can all agree that basements on Long Island are not good places to store cardboard boxes of old records. On the other hand, we also recognize that for economic reasons many offices have to cross their fingers and then stack the boxes downstairs. If you are going to do this, at the very least DO NOT stack cardboard boxes right on the floor. Put used wood shipping pallets down under where the boxes will be.

If you are reading this it is likely your luck ran out. In fairness to you, in recent years it seems places have flooded that had never seen water before. But wet boxes of paper only get worse if not dealt with promptly.

If you now have piles of wet boxes:

First, don’t panic. Mold does not appear instantly. But, you need to figure out what you have down there and if you really, really need it. Some records must be kept for legal reasons and others for business continuity reasons. But we all know that lots of stuff gets kept “just because”.

Second, stabilize the room… whether you are keeping the records or not. This means pumping out any standing water (once the power comes back). Reduce humidity and increase air circulation with fans and dehumidifiers. If the outside air is cooler and less humid, open doors and windows to blow that outside air in. But if you do this, remember to post security to ensure the confidentiality of your records.

Third, it’s time for that hard look at what you have. Frequently it is easier and less expensive in the end to shred the paper and restore records from electronic backups. If this is not practical, you may be able to air-dry the paper if the records are only damp and if there aren’t too many. If they are soaked through and business-critical, you probably need to freeze-dry them. We don’t provide this service ourselves, but call us if you are in this situation and we will refer you to someone who can.

For smaller amounts of wet boxes, you may want to try to salvage the contents yourself. First get everything out of the wet cardboard boxes. Throw those wet boxes out – they won’t bear weight well after they dry. Spread out the files on absorbent material like paper towels or newspaper, keep the air moving, and shuffle and turn over the files every so often to let them all dry. When they are, re-box into new dry boxes. Do not leave the folders in the boxes to dry. If you do they will dry into un-usable solid blocks of paper and the boxes will be stuck to the floor and to each other.

Frankly, many times handwritten records will be lost once wet because the ink may be running.

It is very important to get air circulating and to break down standing stacks and piles of wet boxes. A year after Sandy we saw cases where the top and outer stacks had dried, but the inner and bottom stacks were still wet (and now were covered in slime and mold). Moldy records are very challenging to securely destroy.

Please remember though – if you have a legal obligation to securely destroy confidential files such as medical or credit reports, that obligation will still apply to you even if the records got wet. The laws regarding secure destruction do not get relaxed or lifted after flooding.

If you do need us to shred water damaged records before their mandated retention cycle is up, we will issue a Certificate of Destruction to attest to the need to destroy the records early and why. NAID, the National Association for Information Destruction, recommends that you proactively notify any relevant government agencies by Certified Mail of the need to be destroying flood damaged records, and we agree that this is a good idea. If you have any questions, please consult your attorney for legal guidance about destroying records before their scheduled disposal time.

If we will be shredding for you ahead of schedule, please have as much detail about what date ranges and type of content is being destroyed so that we can properly document the situation on your Certificate. This is for your own future protection. Please note that while our equipment will handle damp records, even our industrial shredders jam if we try to feed dripping wet papers into them! If your boxes are soaking wet, we need to coordinate drying them down to just damp before we can shred.

We strongly advise not putting off this decision. Like we said in the beginning, you have a few days until mold starts, especially if it is cold out. But if a job turns from destroying damp records to destroying moldy records, you could incur a lot of expense which your own prompt action can avoid!

Please call us at 516-342-5551 if you need our help or advice with documenting, shredding, and properly disposing of your wet boxes.