Photo of Moldy drywall in a basement following a modest 6 inch flooding eventHow to Find Emergency Drinking Water Supply in Buildings After a Flood, Fire, or Earthquake Disaster
     


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Where to find drinking water in an emergency:

This emergency drinking water source bulletin outlines possible places to obtain safe drinking water in an emergency following a disaster such as an earthquake, flood, or fire and before rescue workers have arrived.

Our photo at page top shows some brownish water in a toilet tank: actually the water was fine, the stain was from iron and rust in the original water supply - materials accumulated on the interior of the toilet tank. The water we removed was clear and sanitary.

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How to Obtain Emergency Drinking Water after Area Flooding, Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Fires

Some of the water sources listed below may be considered as desperate measures appropriate for people trapped in a building or those whom emergency relief workers have been unable to reach.

Watch out: before entering a building that has been affected by a disaster such as fire, earthquake, or flood, See BUILDING ENTRY PROCEDURE AFTER FLOODING for some safety warnings for occupants, building owners, or volunteers who may find themselves indoors in a disaster area and without immediate assistance from rescue workers or other experts.

How to obtain emergency drinking water after flooding:

Sanitary water may be found in closed containers (C) Daniel Friedman
  • Municipal water supply: try turning on the tap at a clean sink in the building; after some storms, fires, and even earthquakes, the public water supply may be operating in some areas. But do not assume that the water is safe to drink without boiling or disinfecting it until you are told that it's ok. The water supply source, pipes, or other system components may have been flooded and contaminated.

[Click to enlarge any image]

  • Private well water: do not assume that private well water is sanitary and ok to drink even after flood waters have subsided. If the well and/or water equipment such as water tanks, piping, pumps, have been submerged, it is likely that repair and equipment cleaning/sanitizing are needed.

    See WELL CHLORINATION SHOCKING PROCEDURE

    and see WATER TESTS, CONTAMINANTS, TREATMENT
  • Bottled water: if un-opened bottled water is available it should be safe to drink, but if the bottles were flooded it will be necessary to clean and disinfect the bottle exterior before opening.
  • Bottled or canned juices or foods: sealed food containers such as cans or bottles of juice, soup, fruits, vegetables, should contain liquids that are safe to drink provided you make sure to clean and sanitize the container before opening it.
  • Remaining ice: if the disaster event has been brief, water may be available from melting ice cubes.
  • Condensation of fresh water on cool surfaces has been collected and used as a survival aid in some circumstances. Do not however drink air conditioner condensate, dehumidifier condensate, or humidifier tank water - these are usually contaminated with bacteria.
  • Distilled water: if you have electrical power and a home water distiller such as shown in our photo, this equipment can produce a limited quantity of safe drinking water.

    Home water distiller for emergency use if power is available (C) Daniel Friedman

    The yellow color you see in the container at right is due to discolored plastic - the water in the container, produced by the distiller, was clear and sanitary.

    Camping suppliers provide portable water purification equipment that does not require electrical power, such as pumps using ceramic filters.

    Be sure the containers used to collect the distilled water are sanitary.
  • Water heaters as a source of emergency drinking water: You may be able to obtain safe water from undamaged water heaters. Even though the water heater in our photograph has been flooded, it may be possible to extract potable water from inside the water tank.

    Flooded water heater (C) Daniel Friedman

    Be sure that a basement like the one we show is actually safe to enter before approaching the water tank, including safety from structural collapse, electrical shock, or toxins in the standing water on the floor.

    Watch out: Never try to drain water from a water heater tank without being sure that the electrical power to the unit is off.

    It will be easier to get water running out of the tank drain near the bottom of the water heater (that valve shown below the lower red panel in our photo), if you can let air into the water tank as water is running out. This can be accomplished by opening a nearby hot water valve at a fixture higher than the water tank, or by opening the relief valve or a water shutoff valve air bleeder on the water tank itself.

    Be sure that the drain used to remove such water has been cleaned and that you use a clean container to collect the water. If the water from the tank has been exposed to flood waters but looks clear it may still be contaminated and it may need to be boiled or disinfected.
  • Water pressure tanks: clean water may be available from inside private well system water pressure tanks.

    Watch out: But be careful; usually the pressure tank is located in a low building area which is likely to have been contaminated by floodwaters. If the pressure tank is sealed (and if you see that its gauge shows that the pressure tank is still under pressure), the water inside the tank may be uncontaminated.

    The pair of water tanks shown here (it was a poor-recovery rate well that needed lots of in-house water storage) would provide nearly 50 gallons of potable water taken from the drain valve below the water pressure gauge at the left-most tank.

Water pressure tanks as an emergency drinking water source (C) Daniel Friedman

  • Rooftop water tanks and cisterns may be available and are a good source of potable water in most cases as the tanks are more likely to have remained above floodwaters on taller buildings.

Rooftop water storage tanks as an emergency drinking water source (C) Daniel Friedman


  • Toilets & Showers as an emergency drinking water source: It may be possible to salvage water from the toilet flush-tank if the toilet was above floodwaters and has not been flooded or buried in debris.

    Photo of Moldy drywall in a basement following a modest 6 inch flooding event

    The water in a toilet bowl should be assumed to be contaminated and would need to be boiled and disinfected before use.

  • Shower pipes as an emergency drinking water source: There may be a small volume of water remaining in a bath shower vertical pipe that will drain back through the tub spout in the upper level of a building that was not flooded. Place a clean container below a clean tub spout and open the diverter that switches water between the tub spout and the shower head.

    Shower pipes as water source (C) Daniel Friedman

    If the shower was last used with the diverter in that position, a small amount of water may remain in the shower pipe.

    Unfortunately this is a desperate measure - the total volume of water in the shower riser pipe will be small. Possibly there you can find and drain other building pipes that were above the flood level to find additional water.
  • Rainwater: if rain continues to fall, use a clean container to collect rainwater, possibly from a downspout; but that water should not be considered safe for drinking before it has been sterilized, because it has run over a building rooftop and through possibly unsanitary gutters and downspouts.
  • Drinking water wells that were inundated by flood waters should be pumped out and the water tested for purity before drinking. See our well sterilization procedure using household bleach which is detailed at WELL SHOCK / CHLORINATION PROCEDURE. If in doubt, call your local public health authority. Ill health effects often occur when people drink water contaminated with bacteria and germs.

    Steel well casing (C) Daniel Friedman
  • Human urine as a water source for emergency survival has been used by people trapped in mines, and has made a life-or-death difference for trapped miners in some instances.

Advice If Using a Garden hose to collect emergency drinking water

Do not collect water from a water heater, water pressure tank, or rooftop tank by using a garden hose that was contaminated by floodwaters unless the hose has been properly cleaned and disinfected.

Is There Lead in Your Garden Hose Used for Drinking Water>

Garden hose for water hookup (C) Daniel Friedman
  • Is there lead in your garden hose? People may be inclined to drink water from a garden hose for several reasons: it's available, you're hot, outdoors, thirsty, or you are priming a well pump (WELL PUMP PRIMING PROCEDURE) or making an emergency water hook-up to a neighbor's house because your water supply has been lost (WATER PRESSURE PUMP REPAIR GUIDE)

    Watch out: don't assume that the interior of a garden hose is sanitary or that water run through an ordinary garden hose is safe to drink. Also some garden hoses contain lead - do not drink water from a garden hose unless you know that yours is not a lead-containing hose. If you are purchasing a new garden hose, check the label.
  • Some garden hose product labels indicate that the hose is safe for drinking. Othes may indicate that the hose should not be used for drinking. Unfortunately still other hoses are simply not labeled - we won't know about any chemical or lead hazards from drinking from such a hose without testing.
  • The lead hazard in a garden hose, as with possible lead hazards from lead plumbing or lead-solder-based copper pipe connections, depends on several variables including how long water has been resting inside the hose (longer absorbs more lead if lead is present), on the chemistry of your water supply (more aggressive may leach out more lead), and of course on the lead levels in the source: hose, pipe, or somewhere else.
  • If you are in any doubt about the cleanliness of a garden hose being used for well pump priming or for an emergency water supply connection between buildings, sanitizing the hose or the plumbing system after it has been used.
  • More information on lead in water supply piping is at LEAD in WATER, ACTION LEVELS and at LEAD IN DRINKING WATER, HOW to REDUCE, and lead testing is discussed at LEAD TEST KIT for HOME USE.

How to Treat Water to Sanitize it For Drinking

Potable aqua drinking water purification tablets (C) Daniel FriedmanBeware that most advice about purifying water, including the tips we have collected below, address biological contaminants in water, such as bacteria. But be careful. If your water supply has become contaminated by pesticides, heavy metals, or other chemicals, disinfecting the water will not correct those unsafe conditions. The principal methods used to purify water when camping or in an emergency include:

  • Boil the water
  • Use chlorine (bleach, sodium hypochlorite) to purify the water
  • Use iodine or an iodine product to purify the water. Our photo (above/left) shows Potable Aqua® water purification germicidal tablets used for emergency drinking water supply.
  • Use a water purifying pump such as models sold by camping equipment suppliers to purify the water=

Drinking Water Purification Procedures: are described in detail at   DRINKING WATER - EMERGENCY PURIFICATION.

 

 

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