The water has receded, the Sheetrock has been ripped out and the mold has been removed, but the floodwaters driven by Hurricane Sandy have left behind a hidden danger in many of the region’s homes: electrical fires.
Kevin Inskip and his wife were preparing to return to their flood-damaged Brigantine home before a blaze broke out the morning of Jan. 10 that rendered it unlivable again.
“There’s nowhere else to go but back home,” Inskip said of many displaced by the storm. “Meanwhile, in the home, there is the potential for your house to burn down if it was under seawater.”
As displaced residents return — and as many second-homeowners return to check their properties — cities are doing all they can to inspect homes, contact homeowners and get damaged wiring replaced before more fires break out.
Electrical equipment can become extremely dangerous if exposed to water and should be replaced or reconditioned before reuse. The threat is even more serious when the issue is seawater, which leaves behind salt that can corrode wires and increase conductivity.
Brigantine Fire Chief Jim Holl said the initial investigation shows the Inskip fire began in the crawl space under the home and spread to the rest of the house through openings in the walls.
Over time, Holl said, electrical wires get pinched and cracked, exposing the wire under the outer coating.
Under normal conditions, it’s not a problem, Holl said.
But when the wires are exposed to seawater, they degrade and can’t handle the electrical load they were designed to hold, leading to a short circuit.
Another issue, Holl said, is old service panels in many buildings.
A service panel has circuit breakers or fuses in it. If there’s some kind of problem along the electrical wiring, the fuse should trip so that there’s no longer current going through the wiring. But that may not happen in old service panels with worn-out wiring.
Still another worry: the movement of a home when battered by a storm.
A house is not static, Holl said, so when water and wind move a house too much, the wires underneath it can break and tear.
Margate Code Official Jim Galantino said staples used to hold wires to the wall may connect with exposed wires, compromising the circuit.
In response, cities — and the state, as well — are informing property owners of what to do to head off any problems.
The state Department of Community Affairs advised owners to clean and dry all breakers in any electrical panel that was underwater, after which they should be used only temporarily and replaced within 90 days.
In Margate, police, fire and construction officials split the city three ways and knocked on every door — “Occupied, unoccupied, rented, owned, habitable, uninhabitable,” city Fire Chief Anthony Tabasso said.
Still, he said, the possibility of fire remains “an unknown factor.”
“Problems haven’t arisen for us,” Tabasso said. A recent fire in the city is suspected to be arson, not electrical, “but it could always happen.”
Galantino said the possibility was “our biggest concern.”
“Many people haven’t even come down and looked at their properties yet,” Galantino said. “We don’t know if the electricity is on. It may be running minimally, like in the refrigerator. So when you come in and turn the microwave on, or a hairdryer, that eats a lot of electricity up. And a portion of the electrical system may start to fail.”
Margate advised owners not to turn on any breakers in any electrical panels until inspected by an electrician. If those owners chose not to get the panels inspected, they would have to release the city from any responsibility for what could happen as a result.
Unfortunately, many owners still waiting for insurance or payouts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency may be unable to afford to replace their panels or wiring, Inskip said.
But there is one measure they could take.
“We can save lives if we get battery-powered smoke detectors to the island,” Inskip said. “They cost just $5 to $10, and it only takes one to save lives. Right now, if you’re back in your home, you need a smoke detector.”
Inskip said he was in contact with several electrical contractors to donate detectors, which were available Saturday at the Blankets for Brigantine and Beyond distribution center at the Brigantine Town Center off Harbor Beach Boulevard. Any remaining surplus was expected to be available at the Brigantine Fire Department on Brigantine Avenue.
“Several residents asked us, ‘Do you need anything?’” he said. “We don’t know what we need. But for other families, and for peace of mind, we need smoke detectors for our neighborhoods. ... If I can help my neighbors, I can say they helped me.”
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