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Making homes safe after floods – Expert Reaction

Forty homes have been red-stickered, and around 5,000 more have been damaged after a record-smashing deluge across the upper North Island.

Health hazards such as mould and contamination could be waiting for residents returning to their waterlogged homes.

The SMC asked experts to comment on flood damaged houses, and renter/landlord rights. 

Dr Lucy Telfar Barnard, Senior Research Fellow, He Kāinga Oranga Housing and Health Research Programme, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“Often if we’ve got dampness in the home from a leak, the solution is simply drying it out. But this is a different situation, because floodwater tends to be contaminated with sewage and other nasties.

“So that means you need to do quite extensive cleanup. Any kind of absorbent building materials have got to go. If you have carpet or some kind of layered flooring, it may have to be replaced. That’s because it’s not just about the surface contaminants, but also what’s sitting underneath – and the smell that will not go away unless you do that.

“In the short term there’s also concern about mould. People with respiratory conditions should make sure they’re staying somewhere dry, because mould growth could exacerbate their condition.

“Something people might not think to do straight away is to check the electrical safety – water and electricity don’t play nicely.

This 2021 flood recovery bulletin from BRANZ is a thorough list of things that homeowners need to do to make sure their homes are safe after flooding.

“The thing I have been talking to both landlords and tenants about is habitability. The law for residential rentals says if the property is uninhabitable, you can stop paying rent, and you can give two days’ notice. If it’s only partially uninhabitable then it gets tricky, because if the landlord doesn’t agree, you’ll have to go to the tenancy tribunal to have the lease ended.

“If you can’t access a house without passing through flood-inundated areas, then I would say the house is uninhabitable, as you can’t enter without exposing yourself to a health risk. Basically if you can’t live there, you don’t have to pay rent. Landlords should have insurance to cover this, and if they don’t then it’s not the tenant’s responsibility.

“If the property is damaged, tenants are legally required to let the landlord know as soon as possible. When you’re telling the landlord whatever damage the property has suffered, that’s also a good time to talk about what rent you will or won’t be paying, and how long you will or won’t be staying in the property.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Mikael Boulic, Senior Lecturer, School of Built Environment, Massey University, comments:

“Sadly floodings are perfect conditions for mould to grow. Mould spores are everywhere, food for mould is in fabrics, paper, wood… so the last parameter needed is water. Flooding will bring water, and then mould will grow. Even worse, in summer, we get an optimum temperature level for fast mould growth (around 25°C).

“Before returning to your home, first wait for the green light from Civil Defence. Then put on as much protection equipment as possible (gloves, mask, disposable overalls). Don’t go in if it’s already too mouldy, ask for professional mould cleaners. Don’t go in if you have skin or respiratory conditions.

“If you go back to a flooded house, be careful, there are a lot of potential hazards. Know what you are doing. It could be a very unhealthy environment if there is sewage overflow in the floodwaters.

“Once it’s safe to do so, dry out the home ASAP. Unfortunately, the current weather will not help with this effort.

“Mould is very tricky because you clean what you see, and don’t clean what you don’t see. Mould grows according to temperature and relative humidity and often it is invisible. Your most effective weapon against it is to dry the house out as soon as possible.

“If you have power (and it’s safe to use), turn on your air conditioner, a dehumidifier, and/or every fan you own. Keep the windows closed if you have a dehumidifier and an air conditioner to help the air circulate inside and get rid of excess moisture. Keep your windows open if you have only fans, and if there is no power and weather permits, open all your windows and doors to create airflow.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Lesley Gray, Senior Lecturer, Department of Primary Health Care & General Practice, University of Otago, comments:

“For those impacted by these flood events – have you connected with one of the evacuation centres where people and information is ‘on hand’? Or call the MSD number on 0800-400-100 if you had to leave your home or cannot return to your home, even if you managed to stay with friends or family you may be eligible for some assistance. If you live in a rented home, the landlord will be responsible for drying the property. Be sure to take notes and get in touch with your landlord (see the Tenancy Services site for more information).

“For anyone who is having to recover items from floodwater, remember the floodwater may be contaminated with faecal matter, so please ensure you wear gloves and wash your hands (and legs) very carefully afterwards.

“Do not be tempted to play in floodwaters as it could be contaminated, and there could be debris that you cannot see in the water.

“Many of the communities affected in this flood event were also hit hard by the impacts of Covid-19 (and still are being impacted). People’s capacity for resilience varies. Social connections help recovery, resilience, mental health and wellbeing, but not everyone has a social network they can turn to. Think about your own neighbourhood – who lives alone, who rarely gets out and about, does anyone visit – can you offer any support? We saw on Friday night some community organisations jump into action, such as the BBM group led by Dave Letele in South Auckland and West Auckland. The recovery from these massive flood events will take time, energy, resources.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Sarah Bierre, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“We often hear about insurance and assistance for people who own the home they live in; we hear less about how tenants and landlords can navigate flood damage.  If a tenant’s home has been impacted by flooding, after ensuring their safety, the first thing to do is let the landlord know of any damage.  Likewise, landlords should check in with tenants.  While it’s important that tenants and landlords work together to resolve issues, there are also laws that set out how things should be managed.

“It’s the landlord’s responsibility to pay for repairs to the house. It’s important the house is dried out properly to prevent mould growth and that damaged or contaminated fixings are replaced.

“Repairing the house might not always be possible or might take a long time.  If the house has been destroyed or is uninhabitable tenants will not be able to live in the property and the tenancy may need to end. The notice period for tenants is 2 days, landlords must give 7 days’ notice.

“If just part of the house is uninhabitable or destroyed the rent should be reduced while it is fixed. No rent should be paid if the tenant has to leave while repairs are done.  In some cases, it might seem better for the tenancy to end. A landlord or tenant can apply to the Tenancy Tribunal for this to happen. The decision on this will be based on whether the Tribunal decides it would be unreasonable to expect the landlord to fix the property, or unreasonable for the tenant to stay, even with reduced rent.”

Conflict of interest: None