General contractors witness the aftermath of all kinds of severe weather and disasters. Damage sustained from hurricanes, tornados and fires cost billions of dollars annually. While each type of natural disaster presents its own hazards for work crews, perhaps none create more health and safety challenges than eradicating black water.

“Black water contamination usually results from standing water from storm flooding – or in the case of Woodside Apartments in Kissimmee, Fla., – a sewage leak,” said Scott McCurdy, president of business relations for Coastal Reconstruction Group, a Florida-based disaster remediation company and contractor of record for Woodside.

The Contamination

A total of 55 units experienced water damage from the public sewer, causing more than $1 million of destruction. The apartment community had a category 3, level 3 black water contamination, the most severe, and which has the highest potential to cause diseases like hepatitis A and to produce mold spores.

Because of the unsanitary conditions, the health and safety of the building’s occupants and the clean-up and construction crews was top priority. All affected units were evacuated, and all workers were required to receive hepatitis shots before clean-up could begin.

An environmental consultant was brought in to determine the level of contamination and to create protocols for the construction crews to follow. Before entering the buildings, all workers were outfitted with respirators and gloves, plus protective shoe covers and suits. In addition, all workers were required to take classes to become certified in black water treatment.

“One of the biggest challenges with black water intrusion is making sure no one gets sick in the bacteria-infested environment,” McCurdy said.

The Elimination

The first step was to remove all the wastewater from the building. Coastal worked closely with ServiceMaster, a restoration and cleaning service company, during the elimination process.

Once the flood waters receded, vacuums were used to pump water from the units. The process took crews four hours; all the contaminated refuse was dumped back into the sewer. When the water was sufficiently eradicated, all affected interior flooring and drywall had to be safely discarded. In this case, the flood saturated the units – everything from the ground up to four feet had to be removed.

“It was crucial to begin purging the water immediately to reduce the opportunity for mold spores to multiply and cause further loss to the building’s structure,” McCurdy said. “We had to use extra caution when disposing of the contaminated items. Everything we removed from the apartments had to be properly bagged and then dumped.”

After the ruined flooring and interior materials were disposed of, the work crew focused on cleaning the air inside the units. This was done using a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter. The system purified the contaminated air and pushed clean air outside.

To transfer the air outdoors, Coastal crews removed a window in each apartment and then covered it with plywood. A hole was cut in the makeshift window to allow the tubing from the unit to funnel the decontaminated air outside. In addition, crews utilized dehumidifiers to reduce the risk of mold.

The decontamination process did not stop with air purification. Everything had to pass a sanitation test, down to the studs and base flooring, and had to undergo treatment to cleanse any residual bacteria from the home. To determine if the apartments were safe, a strip test was performed by an environmental consultant to gauge bacteria levels.

The strip was then sent for lab testing and, when the results proved that the black water damage had been successfully eliminated, reconstruction was allowed to proceed.

The Remediation

Coastal was given only three months to complete repairs, and the company worked on all 55 units simultaneously. In each unit, new drywall was hung, primed and painted, and new cabinets were installed. In addition, new flooring, hot water heaters, doors, baseboards, window coverings and appliances were added. “All of the units were moving along at some stage in the elimination or remediation process during the project,” McCurdy said.

During the reconstruction, Coastal crews also had to repair the electrical issues that arose from the flooding, as well as sanitize all air handlers and duct work.

(Author’s Note: at this writing, Coastal was completing interior construction on the last remaining units, and tenants were moving back in.)