Here’s how to clean up your home and yard after a tornado

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In just the past year, we’ve witnessed some extraordinarily dangerous weather from raging wildfires on the West Coast to historic freezing and flooding in the Southeast.

This year’s tornado season seems to be par for the course, as powerful storm fronts continue to move through the U.S. this spring, bringing strong tornadoes, large hail, and damaging wind. Tornado season is forecasted to be particularly active this year, with about 1,350 to 1,500 tornadoes expected, according to AccuWeather meteorologists.

Preparing for a tornado is one thing, but clean-up is a whole different ball game. Homeowners must proceed with the utmost caution when cleaning up debris from outside and inside the home. Here’s what you need to know about safely cleaning up after a tornado strikes.
Wait until the severe weather has completely cleared
While you may want to get a head start on cleaning up, you should hold back until weather conditions have improved. You never know if severe weather will continue to roll through after a tornado touchdown.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends staying up-to-date with local guidance via NOAA Weather Radio or TV updates. Public safety officials in your area should also be able to give you further information and instructions for what you should do next.
Understand and avoid potential dangers

Credit: Getty Images / solarisimages
A fallen power line still may be energized, but you won't be able to tell just by looking at it. For this reason, avoid getting near or touching fallen power lines and call emergency authorities if you see them.

Cleaning up after a tornado or any other natural disaster can be dangerous, based on the circumstances you’re facing. That’s why it’s best to evaluate what kind of risk you could be facing before beginning any clean-up.

A good rule of thumb is if the area looks dangerous and decrepit, don’t enter. Buildings with torn roofs, walls, or other severe damage can risk potential injury, so before any clean-up, make sure to contact your local government about what the best next steps are. You may need a professional inspector or other local authority to evaluate the safety of your home before entering.

Immediately avoid any downed power lines that may have fallen near or on your house or yard. The CDC says you should report these electrical hazards to local police and utility companies to allow them to handle this situation.

If your home has been decimated, be sure to call local emergency services and check for any injuries to your household members. You may also need to contact your home insurance company from there before dealing with any damage.
Proceed to clean wearing the proper gear
Similar to any other disaster clean-up, it’s essential to don the proper protective equipment. Wear a hard hat, safety goggles or other eye protection, heavy-duty work gloves, and waterproof boots (with steel toe and insole preferred) to protect yourself from any debris while cleaning. Be sure to also wear a long sleeved shirt and long pants to protect your skin.

The CDC also recommends wearing an N95 mask or a respirator with a higher protection level, if possible. Of course, N95 respirator masks may still be hard to find due to the pandemic. If you have one, be sure to wear that during clean-up to avoid inhaling any potential contaminants. If not, opt for a disposable surgical mask.
Clean up the yard with caution Credit: Getty Images / jldeines
If possible, try to keep your trees trimmed of dead branches or limbs well before a storm rolls through to reduce the possibility of injury during or after a tornado.

Before cleaning, you’ll need to evaluate the state of your trees before you begin picking up debris in the yard. Are there any snapped branches or limbs that haven’t fallen off yet? These could unexpectedly fall and injure you while you’re cleaning up the yard.

If you’re experienced with trimming your trees, you can tend to these areas using a saw with caution. Be sure to follow proper chainsaw safety protocols if you’re using one, like ensuring the tree has no contact with standing or downed power lines. If the tree is large, has many damaged and dangerous limbs, or the situation just feels unsafe to handle, opt for calling a landscaping service or storm recovery service that can handle it promptly.

If the yard is safe to clean up, begin to remove any immediate debris on the ground like loose twigs, dead plants, or leaves. Use a shovel or rake to pick up the yard waste and place it in a heavy-duty trash bag.

For miscellaneous outdoor debris, FEMA has recommended separating it into the following ‘other trash’ piles. This includes hazardous waste, household garbage, and construction debris. Proceed with caution when cleaning this up and make sure debris and trash doesn’t block the road at all.

For heavier items, the CDC recommends having at least two people work together to move and dispose of these bulky objects. You may need to call for a specific trash pickup of these filled-up trash bags, depending on what your area is offering regarding post-storm cleanup.

Your gutters may also need a major clean-up after a storm. Make sure you’ve got safety glasses and work gloves on hand and that your ladder is sturdy and reliable.
Move your clean-up efforts safely indoors Credit: Getty Images / mcKensa
When cleaning up broken glass, try to use a vacuum (if you have access to power) to collect the small yet sharp shards that are easy to miss with a broom.

Tornadoes can leave behind not-so-obvious damage to be on the lookout for. If you suspect any damage at all, the CDC says you should shut off your home’s electrical power, gas (if you have it), and propane tanks to avoid any potential fires, explosions, or electrocutions.

Also, if you begin to notice frayed wiring or sparks, or any sort of burning smell, immediately shut off the electrical system. The same goes for any suspicious gas smell, as this could be a sign of a gas leak—turn off the main gas valve and evacuate the home, not returning until you are told it’s safe to do so by local authorities.

Once your house is determined to be safe for clean-up, continue to sort debris into the proper separate piles—this may include electronics, large appliances, hazardous waste, or household garbage. Again, you may need to set up a specific trash pick-up for this kind of waste, depending on your local services.

The CDC says to be mindful of hazards like exposed nails or broken glass around the house. Your protective gear can help to keep you safe from this kind of danger. Be sure to clean up any spilled medicines, drugs, flammable liquids, or other potentially hazardous materials as you move through the house.
Practice precautions if the power goes out
If a tornado rolls through your area, the likelihood of a power outage is pretty high. If you need immediate light to begin clean-up, the CDC recommends the use of battery-powered lanterns rather than candles—this minimizes the risk of a house fire starting, especially when there’s extra debris like paper or wood in the home.

You may also use a generator to keep your HVAC system and appliances going, along with charging your phone in case you need to get in contact with emergency services. But, if the weather is still severe, you may need to wait it out before using a generator, as it’s dangerous to use one in rain, snow, or other wet conditions due to the risk of electrocution or possible explosion.

When it’s safe to use, be sure to keep your generator running outdoors and several feet away from the house, as exposure to carbon monoxide can lead to sudden illness or death.

Related content feature It's tornado season—here's how to prepare feature 14 things that can help you during extreme weather
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