River flooding

A dead fish hangs in a chain link fence along with other debris that floodwaters left behind along the River Parks trail on the west bank of the Arkansas River on Sunday. Kelsy Schlotthauer/Tulsa World

Flooding stinks, literally, and those smells and what you see after the water recedes are worth some attention.

Travel the roads of recently flooded areas in and near Tulsa, especially on a calm, damp morning, and the air is a bit ripe here and there. Whether that smell should be of concern to residents is a matter of place, time and what your nose can tell you, according to experts.

There is the smell of decay of mold, and then there are the smells you don’t recognize — or those that have the odor of sewage or chemicals — and that’s when you might want to call a professional or an agency.

“If they’re just unsure, if something doesn’t smell right or look right, we tell people to call our hotline,” said Erin Hatfield, director of communications for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. Anonymous complaints are accepted, and the number is 800-522-0206.

“People don’t always know, and they are overwhelmed,” said Gina Gould Peek, housing and consumer specialist with Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension. “Floodwater can have all kinds of nasty chemicals and other things in it, but eventually as things normalize, your yard is not going to be a hazmat site. Generally, the Earth repairs itself. But if you are unsure or hesitant, you should certainly call for help.”

Standing water still is dangerous, said Bernard Dinby, environmental service program manager for the Tulsa Health Department.

“If there still is some flood water out there, people want to be cautious how they proceed,” he said. “You should be wearing personal protective equipment because you need to worry about sewage runoff, fecal matter and, of course, chemicals from vehicles or other chemicals still in the water, and you need to be aware of bacteria in the water.”

Water can naturally put off a foul smell, too. “Stagnant water, we all know, can be smelly, and in that case the Earth will heal itself,” Dinby said.

Stagnant water has a naturally sour smell, Peek said, and so does rotting vegetation.

“If you look across the state, you’ll see flooded wheat fields and other areas with vegetation and all these areas where biological decay is happening,” she said. “With a few days of the sun shining and the wind blowing, things will dry out a little bit. It’s just going to take a little bit of time, and things will be on the up and up again.”

Around an acreage or yard as vegetation dries out a little, it can help to “tidy things up,” Peek said. Any objects that retain water should be emptied not only because stagnant water can cause more smells but because it attracts mosquitoes looking for a place to reproduce.

Trimming back tall grasses and weeds to help areas dry out can be a good idea, as well. Making sure gutters are cleaned out and draining well can be a big help.

“Everyone knows sometimes that stuff you pull out of your gutters reeks. It’s just decay, but what’s important is you want that water to drain away from your home,” she said.

Now is a good time for people to assess their property and look at how water drains — or doesn’t drain — away from their homes, she said. Consider how downspouts are positioned or if they require extensions so they drain farther from the home. French drains might help low spots that hold water in the yard.

If there is a sewage smell, particularly if you or a neighbor has a septic system, it may be time to call a professional, Peek said.

If the ground is remaining wet and spongy around the septic tank and drainage area and most particularly if any sewage is visible or backing up into the home, there is a serious problem, she said.

“In that case it’s not a do-it-yourself situation; you need to call a professional if you can smell it and especially if you can see it,” Peek said.

Mold is another item that can become an issue in moisture-laden homes. Mold is always in the air, and it’s everywhere in small amounts, but when it can be seen and where there is an odor like moldy bread, again it may be time to call a professional.

“The main thing, the first thing, is to just make sure everything is dried out,” she said.

A moisture meter, which can be purchased at a hardware store for about $30 or borrowed from a local county extension office, can help find areas that are damp but might not appear to be soaked.

For those with a few inches of water in a home or garage, a meter can help determine how high to go in cutting out drywall after the water is gone. In homes that have been deeply flooded, the procedure will be much more dramatic, with removal of any porous materials in the home, Peek said.

Fans and dehumidifiers can be used initially, and the moisture meter — and your nose — can be tools to gauge your success or to find problem areas later.

As for the rest of the countryside that is putting out smells of decay and rot, Peek said “it will keep raining, and eventually nature will take care of that problem. Eventually things will balance out, and lo-and-behold, we will be in a drought again before we know it.”

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Kelly Bostian



Twitter: @KellyBostian

Staff Writer

Kelly Bostian writes about and photographs all things involving the environment, conservation, wildlife, and outdoors recreation. Phone: 918-581-8357

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