Homeowners with septic systems need to take special precautions and actions in the aftermath of hurricanes, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The organization offers the following steps homeowners should take to ensure a safe return to normal septic system operation:

Septic systems should not be used immediately after floods. Drain fields will not work until underground water has receded. Septic lines may have broken during the flood.

If the ground area around your septic system is saturated, it is recommended that you do not pump the tank. Pumping the tank would be only a temporary solution. Under worst conditions, pumping it out could cause the tank to try to float out of the ground and may damage the inlet and outlet pipes. The best solution is to plug all drains in the basement and drastically reduce water use in the house.

Do not use the sewage system until water in the soil absorption field is lower than the water level around the house. Have your septic tank professionally inspected and serviced if you suspect damage. Signs of damage include settling or an inability to accept water.

Most septic tanks are not damaged by flooding since they are below ground and completely covered. However, septic tanks and pump chambers can fill with silt and debris, and must be professionally cleaned. If the soil absorption field is clogged with silt, a new system may have to be installed.

Only trained specialists should clean or repair septic tanks because tanks may contain dangerous gases. Contact your health department for a list of septic system contractors who work in your area.

If sewage has backed up into the basement, clean the area and disinfect the floor. Use a chlorine solution of a half cup of chlorine bleach to each gallon of water to disinfect the area thoroughly.

Pump the septic system as soon as possible after the flood. Be sure to pump both the tank and lift station. This will remove silt and debris that may have washed into the system. Do not pump the tank during flooded or saturated drainfield conditions. At best, pumping the tank is only a temporary solution. Under worst conditions, pumping it out could cause the tank to try to float out of the ground and may damage the inlet and outlet pipes.

Do not compact the soil over the soil absorption field by driving or operating equipment in the area. Saturated soil is especially susceptible to compaction, which can reduce the soil absorption field's ability to treat wastewater and lead to system failure.

Examine all electrical connections for damage before restoring electricity. Be sure the septic tank's manhole cover is secure and that inspection ports have not been blocked or damaged. Check the vegetation over your septic tank and soil absorption field. Repair erosion damage and sod or reseed areas as necessary to provide turf grass cover.

Go easy on your system. Whenever the water table is high or your sewage system is threatened by flooding there is a risk that sewage will back up into your home. The only way to prevent this backup is to relieve pressure on the system by using it less.

To learn more about Hurricane Ike activities, visit http://www.epa.gov/hurricane.