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I hope this question is appropriate to this Stack.

My elderly mother lives alone in a townhouse with a basement, since my father passed about six months ago. This morning, the basement experienced mild flooding with unusual circumstances. Let me describe the basement as best I can, then the extent of the flooding, then ask the question.

The Basement

The basement is perhaps 800-1000 square feet, wall to wall carpet of the sort one puts in the basement of a townhouse-- rugged, durable, not exactly for show. Three areas are not carpeted: a workshop area my father used, the furnace and boiler closet, and a utility closet. The former of those two areas had sump pumps installed.

Of importance later is this: My father was a packrat and the basement is filled with bookshelves, tool shelves, tool racks, and just outright waist-high piles of full cardboard boxes. And I do mean filled. There are foot paths one can navigate with care.

Per answer below I will try to describe the conditions more precisely:

  • The carpet is slightly under ten years old, newly installed by previous owners to motivate the sale

  • Basement was largely unused and most of the carpet has been covered by boxes. I don't know if that means it is clean because the boxes protected it, or dirty because the boxes have pressed into it.

  • Climate appropriate to far Chicago suburbs, fifteen miles from the lake, 250 feet higher elevation from the lake. Central air keeps the ground floor at 72 in the summer, perhaps a bit chillier than that in the basement, and no excessive moisture or other leaks observed in all that time.

The Flooding

The flooding was not severe. The pumps functioned mostly as expected, but at least at one point they were overwhelmed, and my mother (with hearing problems) did not hear the pumps or the moisture alert until hours later. Most of the water was confined to the truly unfinished areas with the sump pumps, and by the time I arrived it has mostly receded.

At least some of it has gotten under the carpet, however. Visibly this extends only a short distance into the carpeted area. I have since mopped and wet-vac'd up everything I could, and placed two residential sized floor blowers to start drying things out. (I considered cutting a hole in the carpet and running the exhaust of a wet-vac under the carpet, but the amount of stuff sitting on the floor would just pin the carpet down and impede airflow.)

Some hours later, though, I can see some of the cardboard boxes on the floor well outside (what I thought was) the affected area wicking up moisture into themselves. I am not quite sure what's going on here but I conjecture the carpet acted like a sponge or a wick, and distributed moisture horizontally which I did not perceive, and the weight of the (let's be honest) junk is pressing it out. I'm not sure that makes sense.

The Question(s)

How long do we have to deal with this situation before mold and other associated problems set in? Surely not months, but weeks? Days? Hours?

It is not physically possible for me, my mother, or any reasonable fraction of family and friends to clear out that basement in short order. It cannot be done. A day long junk removal contract is the only way to deal with this in the short term.

A mild confounding factor is that my mother and I have been willing to let older relatives of my father's generation slowly (s-l-o-w-l-y) pick over the tools and other objects they want. I can and will drop the hammer and set a deadline on this if necessary, but I do not know what level of speed is required here. I also do not want to see a $2,000 problem (expected cost of removal service) to snowball into a $20,000 nightmare because we were trying to be nice to family members.

In addition to that I will take any advice that seems relevant. But the time frame is the biggest unknown that I have right now.

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Depends on a lot of unknowns; temperature, humidity, carpet material, how dirty it is etc. etc. Could be as short as hours though, days at best, but not weeks.

You need to dry out that carpet immediately. I would call a "starving student" moving company or someone like that and have them move the "collection" somewhere like a storage site or one of those temporary containers they put in your driveway (PODS is one company I see, stands for Portable On Demand Storage), that way your relatives can pick through it at their convenience.

  • I do not think they will change your answer, but I have tried to be more precise about the environmental conditions. Also, temporary storage is not an angle I would have considered. Thank you. – Reader May 2 at 0:25
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    Yes, sounds like the carpet was wicking the water. The cardboard will break down rapidly once wet and becomes an attractant for pests like termites, sow bugs and earwigs (depending on where you are). So get it out of there asap. – JRaef May 3 at 0:09
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The accepted answer is still the answer I want to accept, because it helped me. However, I am memorializing my experiences while they are fresh so that others in similar situations have something to refer to.

In this situation there are several possible mold/mildew dangers:

The carpet itself: This answer is basically correct, but I will add that while I was calling water restoration companies, they gave a guideline of 48 to 72 hours (leaning toward the 48) after which the carpet would be assumed to be unrecoverable.

The baseboards, if any: In this situation, with wet wall to wall carpet, the water will eventually wick over the entire surface area of the carpet and make contact with the baseboards. These can also host mold and mildew.

The drywall, if any: In this situation, water will also wick from the carpet to the lower drywall, which can also host mold and mildew.

The insulation, if any: Some, but not all, types of insulation can also host mold and mildew. There are of course other types of water damage that are not mold or mildew related.

Our Situation Was Suboptimal; Here Is What Happened:

Our flooding was the result of extended periods of heavy rain, which meant it coincided with many other local instance of flooding. Few were severe, but the local companies specializing in recovery were (pardon the pun) swamped.

Flooding occurred on day 1.

With almost no delay on our part, it still took two days for a junk removal company to come. They came late on the day they did come, and the job itself took 6-7 hours. (There was a lot of junk.) Therefore, we did not even have clear floors until late on day 3. By that time the area was permeated with the smell unlike a wet, filthy dog. No mold or mildew was visible, but I am sure the carpet was unrecoverable at that point.

Then our insurance company dropped the ball on getting a water restoration company out there. (A long story not germane to this timeline.) This did not happen until day 5, when they came and ripped the carpets out, drilled the baseboards for ventilation, and dropped about a dozen high power blowers and dehumidifiers through the area. They were initially optimistic about both the drywall and the insulation. In the end, the lower portion of the drywall had to go, and the insulation was damaged (but not with mold and mildew.)

Had everything gone exactly correct-- junk removal on the morning of Day 2, water restoration on the evening of Day 2, we might possibly have saved the carpet, although it seems unlikely. More likely is that the baseboard and drywall might have been salvaged even through Day 3... maybe.

This answer serves primarily to put a concrete timeline down with an example of how much time was DEFINITELY too long, even though we put our best efforts into hurrying the process. This is based not only on fresh personal experience but also the estimates of the water restoration professions, both of which are in accord with each other.

It also serves to help people understand the level of effort in trying to dry out a carpet. A 650 square foot basement had over a dozen blowers once the restoration company got there, not just the two we had on hand.

All this for a quantity of water that never even qualified as "standing water" because it was absorbed by the carpet.

(There is a notionally happy ending here, in that the insurance company is not balking at any of the expenses after that initial ball-dropping.)

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