For those who are in the path of hurricane Matthew getting through the next 24 to 48 hours unscathed is their biggest worry. But for the vast majority, the most dangerous time will come after the storm has passed.
For it is during the cleanup, and the days and even weeks that can follow without power or water, that the biggest health dangers appear.
Those in harm’s way who have extra food & water, provisions for emergency lighting, a first aid kit, an emergency weather radio, and a family emergency plan are likely to fare far better than those who failed to prepare.
After the storm has passed, flood waters are often slow to recede, and they can leave behind a multitude of dangers. Downed electrical lines, dangerous debris, weakened and compromised structures, and even displaced wildlife can pose ongoing threats following the storm.
Not only do flood waters easily hide dangerous objects - like broken bottles, razor sharp metal sheeting, live electrical wires, and rusty nails – they can also harbor nasty viruses and bacteria, along with dangerous wildlife.
A review, therefore, of some of those threats and how to avoid them:
First, many people may find themselves without electrical power, internet or even cell phone service for hours, or possibly even days after the storm has passed. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy left some parts of the Northeast without power for a week or longer, while Katrina took out the power for well over a month in parts of Louisiana and Mississippi.
While most people will have battery operated flashlights or LED lanterns (no candles, please!) for lighting, many people can expect to lose perishable food items as freezers and fridges begin to lose their chill.
The USDA maintains a Food Safety and Inspection website with a great deal of consumer information about how to protect your food supplies during an emergency, and how to tell when to discard food that may no longer be safe to consume.
A Consumer's Guide to Food Safety: Severe Storms and Hurricanes
Note: This text-only version of the Guide has been optimized for accessibility. The illustrated PDF version (2.1MB) is recommended for printing.
Safety of Food in Containers Exposed to Flood Waters
Removing Odors from Refrigerators & Freezers
Food Safety Contacts for Areas Affected by Severe Storms and Hurricanes
FOOD SAFETY DURING AN EMERGENCY
Did you know that a flood, fire, national disaster, or the loss of power from high winds, snow, or ice could jeopardize the safety of your food? Knowing how to determine if food is safe and how to keep food safe will help minimize the potential loss of food and reduce the risk of foodborne illness. This Consumer's Guide will help you make the right decisions for keeping your family safe during an emergency.
Another common risk that comes when dealing with power outages is the use of generators, and improvised cooking or heating methods, which if done improperly can result in (preventable) Carbon Monoxide poisonings.
In Carbon Monoxide: A Stealthy Killer I wrote in depth on the issue, but this brief video from the CDC will provide you with an overview.
CO poisoning should not to be underestimated. It is colorless, odorless, and often induces a state of lethargy which prevents people from realizing they are being slowly poisoned. After every major storm we see numerous deaths and injuries from CO poisoning.
Chainsaw accidents also figure prominently after many weather-related disasters, as many people with little experience find themselves clearing driveways and rooftop of fallen branches. The CDC maintains a chainsaw safety webpage:
Preventing Chain Saw Injuries During Tree Removal After a Disaster
Each year, approximately 36,000 people are treated in hospital emergency departments for injuries from using chain saws. The potential risk of injury increases after hurricanes and other natural disasters, when chain saws are widely used to remove fallen or partially fallen trees and tree branches.
Flooding, or standing water can provide its own set of challenges, as it can easily become contaminated with chemicals and sewage. The CDC provides a webpage on these threats as well. Often, cases of Vibrio vulnificus infection (see Vulnerable To Vibrio) will spike following coastal flooding events.
Health RisksFlood waters and standing waters pose various risks, including infectious diseases, chemical hazards, and injuries.
Infectious Diseases expanded
Other Health Effects
Cleanup of Flood WaterWhen returning to your home after a flooding emergency, be aware that flood water may contain sewage. For more information on how to protect yourself and your family, visit CDC’s Flood Water After a Disaster or Emergency.
And last on our list, in the aftermath of a storm it is important to realize that you, your family, or your neighbors may find yourself suffering from the psychological effects of the disaster.
Three years ago, in Sandy 1 Year Later: Coping With The Aftermath, we looked at some of the lingering effects of New England’s brush with that storm, and in 2015 the CDC held a COCA Call: Understanding The Mental Health Impact Of Hurricane Sandy.
While the psychological impact of a major disaster cannot be fully prevented, individual, family, and business preparedness can go a long ways towards reducing the impact of any disaster.
The National Center For PTSD provides guidance - including videos - on how to provide Psychological First Aid.
Psychological First Aid: Field Operations Guide
Psychological First Aid
For Disaster Responders
Developed jointly with the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, PFA is an evidence-informed modular approach for assisting people in the immediate aftermath of disaster and terrorism: to reduce initial distress, and to foster short and long-term adaptive functioning.
A small reminder that in the wake of a disaster not all wounds bleed, not all fractures will show up on an X-ray, and that the best treatment cannot always be found inside your first aid kit.
Note: You should try and download and save much of the information from these websites onto your computer or smart phone before the storm, so you’ll have it even if there are disruptions in your power or internet access.