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The physical cleanup of the buildings and contents affected by the Chicago flood of Monday, April 13, 1992 was “restoration” in its most simplistic, yet detailed form. Simplistic in the sense that it was very labor intensive as compared to a high technology disaster, yet detailed in its attention to project management and proper health and safety procedures.

Companies who either owned, managed, and/or were tenants in the flood affected buildings began calling Monday afternoon and the number of these calls kept increasing within the next 24—72 hours, once the re-occupancy delay was evident. Building Management personnel were concerned about the damage to and the restoration of their facilities, building systems, telecommunication, electronic and fire protection equipment. The tenants were concerned about their assets such as vital records in the form of paper documents, magnetic media, and microforms stored in the basements of these buildings that they had to evacuate. Many had pre-qualified their emergency resources for restoration in their disaster recovery plans and immediately called the 24-hour, toll-free number for assistance. When they made their initial call to us, they weren’t sure if- or how badly- their facilities or contents were damaged. We were put on call to stand by. It was apparent, very quickly, that mobilization of personnel and equipment in and to Chicago was imperative. Our Chicago operation centers in Alsip and Hillside geared up for response and additional specialized personnel, including Project Management Teams, Industrial Hygiene Personnel, Restoration, Engineering, and Document/Vital Record Recovery Specialists, along with the necessary supplemental equipment were sent to the scene. Based upon the initial calls for assistance and available information, we knew there was a lot to be done once the water went down and we were permitted access to the facilities. Prior to gaining access to the individual buildings, project management meetings were taking place with the building management and tenants who were requesting assistance.

An important initial step, prior to restoration activities taking place, was a comprehensive assessment of the working environment, as well as the damage. Due to the nature and extent of the flood waters, it was necessary to perform a thorough assessment of the water, structures and contents through testing and analysis. This was critical not only for a “safe and healthful” working environment (as required by OSHA), but also to assure that there would be no cause for a third party liability concern.

Because of the unknown nature of the contents in the flood waters, which could have contained a variety of contaminants such as bacteria, heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs, hydrocarbons in various forms such as gasoline, oils, etc., water samples were collected and analyzed at an accredited, independent laboratory in Chicago. Normal turnaround time on test results such as these hardly ever meet the priority time frames you are working within during a disaster, and in order to expedite the analysis information from the laboratory, Building Management would incur significant “rush” and “surcharge” charges, as well as Federal Express or other courier fees. However, responding with a “sense of urgency” was critical in order for the proper restoration process to begin.

The flood waters in the basements were basically clean from contamination. In some instances, however, there were some hydrocarbons in the form of oils floating on the surface, which had come from the mechanical room, waste oil storage or fuel oil tanks. Since this was a flood and not a hazardous materials incident, upon entering the building we used a Toxic/ Combustible/Oxygen Deficiency Meter in the areas of concern. This tells us if there is a presence of toxic or combustible gasses, and if there is significant oxygen present to eliminate the necessity of supplied air.

The silt was tested for the previously mentioned contaminants such as bacteria, heavy metals, etc., and submitted to the laboratory for analysis. In some cases our Certified Industrial Hygienist found metals, including lead, chrome, cadmium, barium and traces of mercury. If the silt had been allowed to dry, and dry cleaning methods such as sweeping were used, then the potential for employee exposure to unacceptable concentrations could have occurred. However, wet cleaning methods such as pressure washing and wet wiping of the structures and contents were employed.

Based upon the site assessment, it was determined, in conjunction with OSHA requirements, that workers were required to wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as rubber boots and gloves, splash suits, safety glasses, hard hats, as well as safety belts, and lanyards for elevated work above six feet in height. A unique engineering approach to scaffolding had to be used in many of these buildings in order to get close enough to the surfaces to properly decontaminate them. This was due to the enormous amount of pipes and modifications that had taken place in many of these older buildings over the years. In addition, many of the areas to be cleaned were considered “confined space” such as ash pits, coal bins, sumps, etc. These confined spaces required additional safety measures, including air monitoring and standby personnel.

Asbestos contamination was a major consideration in some of the older buildings. The AHERA regulations do not require “commercial” buildings to abate asbestos—only to maintain and monitor it properly. However, due to the height the flood waters reached in many of these buildings—in many cases flooding two or more sub basements completely, asbestos containing material (ACM) on steam pipes, boilers, valves, etc., was saturated. Consequently, the ACM delaminated from many surfaces and was widely distributed throughout the immediate vicinity. The distribution of ACM posed a potential health threat and had to be addressed prior to cleanup activities, in those buildings where this situation existed.

Those pipes insulated with fiberglass, rather than asbestos, were also saturated with water. Although fiberglass does not pose the same health concerns—in compliance issues—as asbestos does, proper procedures had to be followed as well. The fiberglass was removed, and the pipes cleaned in preparation for reinsulation of new fiberglass.

Another site assessment consideration at the affected buildings was the potential presence, and loss, of maintenance chemicals, oils, paints, solvents, housekeeping chemicals and pesticides, etc. which could have been released into the flood waters. When these, and other “unknown” chemicals were found, stored in various locations in these sub basements, the following procedures had to be implemented. A complete physical inventory of each container was taken. Simultaneously, product segregation, according to Department of Transportation (D.O.T.) Hazard Class Specifications was performed by hazardous material technicians. Lab Packing which involves placing the product containers, according to their “hazard class” into a larger receptacle approved by the Department of Transportation, was followed. Prior to the products being placed in the larger receptacles, such as drums ranging from one gallon to 55 gallon drums, a four inch packing medium, such as vermiculite, was utilized as a cushioning base to omit any breakage of the inner products. Department of Transportation and EPA Federal regulations then require proper drum labeling and manifesting of those drums, according to the particular State regulation. Once the waste materials are approved for disposal by the appropriate disposal facilities, i.e., hazardous waste incinerators, cement kilns, or Treatment Storage Disposal Facilities (TSDF), the drums are properly loaded onto EPA and D.O.T. approved hazardous waste transporters and taken to the disposal facility where they are properly treated and disposed.

The cleanup of the buildings and contents damaged by the flood generally began in the area of the mechanical room and the fresh water system, the boiler feed system, ejector pumps and the heating and air conditioning systems containing the boiler and chiller units. Telephone switchgear and fire protection equipment were also priority items.

The systems and equipment found in the mechanical room were submerged in dirty flood water and had silt contaminating the windings and bearings. Even totally closed motors were damaged where the water seeped in around the shaft seals. In order to determine what would be cost effective to restore—the determining factor was generally the cost of replacement versus cleaning.

However, it was necessary to remove the silt and debris from these items so that the Building Engineer, Fire Protection Engineer and Telephone Company Engineer could inspect their equipment to determine the extent of damage and then recommend the restoration or replacement.

Following each building management’s direction, as to which rooms in their basements were their priorities, those items and the room housing them were addressed first.

For example, in most cases it was critical to get the fire protection system and telephone switchgear up as quickly as possible. In some buildings, where the fire protection system was not operating when they re-opened, the Building Management in conjunction with the City, ran fire hoses from hydrants in the streets with portable pump units, directly into the building so that in the event of a fire, the necessary water and pressure was there.

In other instances, the building management arranged to have new fire protection systems brought right in. In most cases, the electrical control panels for the fire protection alarm systems were replaced.

With regard to the telephone equipment in the flooded basement areas, most of the equipment was still energized because the flood waters rose so quickly in those third sub basement areas.

Due to this, there were extremely high levels of corrosion that occurred very quickly, damaging most of the panels beyond repair. Pressure washing, incorporating a disinfectant, was used to clean the equipment so that the telephone technicians could begin their repairs and replacement. During the telephone equipment reinstallation, we installed dehumidification equipment to keep the room at a constant 50 percent or less humidity level while the remainder of the sub basements or building areas were pressure washed and cleaned.

Initial cleaning procedures involved spraying with a water pressure of approximately 1000—2000 psi depending upon whether or not you were pressure washing a wall or electronic switchgear. The procedure consisted of using tap water from the building’s water supply to remove the gross debris from the structure and equipment. Then we follow with a deionized water rinse to remove any remaining particulate or contaminants which may have been found in the regular water system such as chlorines, irons, etc. As mentioned earlier, other than normal bacteria, typical in most city river situations, no hazardous contamination was present. Prior to the flood water being pumped out of the buildings, the storm sewer drains were full and backed up. Once the water was pumped out—washing water could drain easily down the drain in the basement area.

In cleaning the motors, the silt and debris were flushed out with plain water and followed by a deionized water rinse. Some were then transported to a motor shop, where they were disassembled, baked out and bearings replaced. Motor shops can sometimes perform the recertification for the manufacturer, and in other cases, only the manufacturer can do the recertification.

Pumps generally were pressure washed, and in some cases, the bearings replaced.

With regard to the boilers and chiller units, after pressure washing, where it was necessary and was cost effective, electronic restoration was performed to remove corrosion and other contaminants.

Our restoration specialists spent a great deal of time inside the boilers themselves to remove the heavy sludge accumulated inside the boiler firebox. (see picture) Contact cleaner was then used to displace moisture and hand detailed cleaning was used to remove the corrosion itself.

In many cases, where it was not cost effective to restore, the Building Engineers replaced the electrical systems. Many of the systems were modular and easily replaced.

Many of the building basements contained the Chief Engineer’s office and carpenter’s shops, as well as plumbing and electrical supplies, light fixtures, wiring, stored computer cable, housekeeping supplies, table vises, anvils, and small tools.

In most cases it was not cost effective to clean these items and they became part of the controlled demolition and debris removal, along with wooden chairs, desks, shelving, file cabinets, carpeting, tool boxes, etc. Disposal of these items was done at the direction of the Building Management Company after they and the insurance company had completed their inventory.

Building Managers were reaching out everywhere for dumpsters, and those who had resourced them in their disaster recovery plans were able to get what they needed, when they needed it.

Many streets, and parts of streets, were blocked from traffic by the City so that dumpsters, generators, refrigeration trucks, rental equipment and dehumidification equipment had space available.

Due to the flood waters, and resulting moisture, dehumidification of the buildings also had to be addressed immediately. An ideal humidity for a commercial working environment is somewhere between 40-50 percent relative humidity, at 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit.

For example, the ambient air in the occupied space would be okay, except the humidity level was being driven up by the free water wicking up out of the walls from the flood waters. Both desiccant and refrigeration methods were used throughout the damaged buildings in Chicago. An advantage of the refrigeration method is that refrigeration units do not require access to the outside of the building, and this is helpful in modern high-rises, where the windows are sealed.


We have been concentrating so far on the restoration of the structure itself and the systems in the basement areas damaged by the extensive flooding, but it is equally important to consider and address the restoration of the vital records stored in these areas as well.

Magnetic media, paper documents, and microforms were subjected to extreme degradation by the high humid environment, as well as the water. As quickly as possible, these items had to be removed from the facilities housing them, loaded with special handling into refrigeration trucks, with a zero degree capability for freezing.

In many cases, there were no inventories of these items, or only partial inventories at best and very little prioritization of these items was in place by the people who had originally placed them in storage.

The importance of pre-loss disaster recovery planning, with regard to vital records, was extremely evident here. Damage assessments of these items were easily performed by document restoration specialists, but in order for cost effective decisions to be made by their owners as to whether or not the documentation warranted recovery or destruction, proper inventory and prioritizing of these assets should have been in place before they went into original storage.

Thousands upon thousands of boxes, file cabinets and drawers, tape storage cabinets and shelving, etc., were located in these building basements.

Many of the shelves had fallen down from the water pressure, and the media and documents were laying in piles on the floor, under debris. Having been underwater for about 10 days, the owners of tapes, for example, had great concern as to whether the data on them could be recovered.

The tapes were taken out of the water and in order to prevent deteriorating mold growth from occurring, the tapes were placed in proper tape storage boxes, and were refrigerated immediately in refrigeration units at above freezing temperatures of 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

The tapes were then taken in the refrigeration units to a technical center where they were dried and the necessary data recovery procedures began. The microforms (microfilm, microfiche mainly) were removed using proper procedures and taken to processing centers. Documents which were to be saved, were carefully loaded into boxes, or wet boxes of documents placed into dry boxes, and then transferred into refrigeration units for freezing.

When wet documents are frozen, mold and mildew growth stop and then the freeze drying procedures can take place. Where inventories of these items existed, and where prioritization of the inventory had taken place before the disaster, decisions could be made quickly as to what needed to be saved and what was cost effective to be saved.

A great deal of the stored documents were determined by their owners to be of insufficient value to warrant recovery and were removed from the buildings and appropriately destroyed.

The restoration of the items to be saved will be going on for quite a period of time due to the volume of documentation being restored.

With regard to the completion of the building clean up and restoration procedures, a joint effort by local agencies, as well as contractual health specialists, is providing final reoccupancy clearances for the buildings.


This community wide disaster only emphasizes how important it is for corporate contingency planners to concentrate on making their disaster recovery plans more comprehensive than just data center and information services recovery.

It is critical for business continuity to plan for the recovery of the facility housing the business functions and support units, and to identify in that plan those buildings which you own or lease space in.

Identify what are your recovery “responsibilities” and “capabilities” if you are denied access to your facility for a lengthy period of time due to a singular, community wide or contamination disaster.

Determine in advance your corporate relocation site possibilities, including what your minimum space requirements, working conditions, support equipment, furnishings, telecommunications and network support, as well as production needs must be in the event of a facility relocation incident.

Pre-loss inventory and prioritizing of physical assets, including records, at all locations will help in protecting and recovering those items. Physical property restoration by a pre-qualified resource should be an integral part of your disaster recovery plan.

Pat Williams Moore is the Director of the Education and Disaster Recovery Division of BMS Catastrophe, Inc. (BMS CAT), an international corporation headquartered in Ft. Worth, Texas, specializing since 1948 in facility and content restoration.

This article adapted from Vol. 5 #3.