What diseases, illnesses and dangers to look out for after hurricanes
This post comes from contributor Houston attorney Neal Davis. Enjuris and all its members wish a safe recovery to the city and residents of Houston, Texas, in the coming weeks and months.
Before anything else, I want to say that I am deeply sorry for anyone who is or has a loved one who is suffering because of Hurricane Harvey right now. This is the most tragic natural disaster our state has experienced in some time, and despite having the foreknowledge of Hurricane Katrina, this storm still managed to take us by surprise. By the end of this, approximately 50 inches of water will have been dumped on cities like Rockport, Port Aransas, Baytown and Houston, surging over dams that have never been breached before hitting Louisiana. (See photos to get an idea of the magnitude at this very moment.)
I realized that as soon as this storm recedes, another series of issues will rear their ugly heads. We Texans will not receive a moment of respite before the barrage of post-hurricane problems will surface, and we must be ready for them.
Post-hurricane health hazards
While certainly we must be on the lookout for obvious issues following any natural disaster (flooding, looting and the like), there are silent killers waiting to make their entrance.
- Walking through the water: When trying to escape a flooded house, you will need to make your way through the water to a boat. That means you might walk over a missing manhole and plunge down, step on broken glass – anything that could puncture your skin and cause a wound will be very difficult to clean. Make sure to wear shoes and long pants if possible.
- Electrocution: Water is a conductor, and there are sure to be live wires. Be extremely careful.
- Drowning: Hurricane Harvey has already claimed a number of drowning victims, including a police officer. Even if you know how to swim, these currents are unpredictable and can get the best of you. Drowning in cars is another specific and unique threat.
- Hypothermia: If the water is cold enough and you are standing in it for an extended period of time trying to get to a boat, you can forget that you are freezing. It can take a while to become debilitated, even in warmer temperatures, so keep an eye on your watch and monitor your body.
- Carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators: This is one that people forget about. Using portable generators can be a blessing during a power outage, but breathing in the fumes can be deadly.
- Skin rashes from chemicals washed into the water: When floodwaters reach a family’s garage and wash out cans of paint and chemicals, those swish back out into the street, where they reach the unsuspecting populace. These can cause chemical burns; burning in the eyes, nose and ears; and skin rashes. The best thing to do is to shower with soap and clean water immediately after coming in contact with floodwater.
- Dehydration: Many stores have price-gouged cases of water in Texas up to $99 each. This leaves many Texans without a potable drinking supply, as two reservoirs have been drained in order to prevent subsequent infrastructure problems. Now, however, drinking water has come in contact with dirty floodwater. Anheuser-Busch delivered 155,000 cases of bottled water to communities in the Gulf Coast, which helps the cause significantly.
- Wound care: Keeping cuts, scrapes and abrasions clean in such an environment can be extremely difficult. If not done, this can lead to bacterial infections (which we shall discuss in unfortunate detail).
- Mental distress: An event such as Hurricane Harvey can cause significant mental distress to anyone, and post-traumatic stress disorder is something to watch out for in the coming weeks and months. Here is a list of therapists in Houston who specialize in trauma and PTSD treatment.
- Prescription medication supply: Being without your medications can be especially worrying. However, pharmacies know what is going on in Houston, and if they can see from your records that you live in the area, they know that you are not out to swindle them for extra pills. If you call them and ask for help, they will work with you to transfer your prescription to a pharmacy that has not been affected and that you can reach.
Bacterial infections: Once the immediate problems are dealt with, it is time to think of some more pressing issues like bacterial infections, which can be lurking in the floodwater.When the water mixes with sewage and then sloshes through the neighborhood, you are looking at a veritable petri dish. The best thing to do is to be in the water as little as possible, but obviously one cannot avoid it in these circumstances. Use hand sanitizer when you can, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. When it is available, use soap and water to wash your hands. Then, shower.The following bacterial infections are the ones that surface most during floods:
- E. coli: While many strains of Escherichia coli are harmless, some cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.
- Shigella: This also causes bloody diarrhea.
- Cholera: Most of you know this from the Oregon Trail, but this causes diarrhea, dangerous dehydration, vomiting, nausea, shock, seizures and possibly a coma.
- Conjunctivitis: This is commonly known as “Pink Eye,” which can be bacterial or viral. The eye will be red, itchy and form a crust that is hard to remove until the virus passes.
- Legionnaire’s Disease: This is a severe form of pneumonia caused by bacteria. It comes with headaches, muscle pains, cough and gastrointestinal symptoms.
- Typhoid fever: While this is rare in developed countries, it could still occur during a natural disaster. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, high fever and headache.
Infectious diseases passed through floodwater: It is not just bacteria you need to worry about; infections are just as easily passed through the water.
- Hepatitis A: This is a highly contagious liver infection that incubates for a few weeks. Then symptoms start popping up, which include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort, joint pain, fever and yellowing of the skin.
- Norovirus: This is the notorious winter flu that seems to strike every year and is extremely contagious. In a flood environment, it could be even more contagious. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headaches, fever, malaise, cramps, muscle pain and diarrhea.
Mosquito-borne viruses: Once the waters still, mosquitos will start to breed. Once that happens, they will start to spread their own viruses, some of which are still uncommon in the Houston area, though we should still be prepared:
- Zika Virus: This virus normally strikes in tropical or subtropical areas, and it causes conjunctivitis, fever, rashes and muscle pain. It is most dangerous for pregnant women, as it can cause miscarriages and microcephaly.
- Yellow Fever: Again, this is most common in Africa and South America. Symptoms include fever, headache, nausea and vomiting. More serious forms of the disease include kidney, liver and heart problems, and up to 50% of those with the serious form can die.
- West Nile Virus: Most people infected with West Nile Virus do not develop symptoms, though the ones who do experience inflammation of the spinal cord or brain.
- Dengue: This is difficult to diagnose and can be mistaken for other viruses. It causes pain behind the eyes, headache, muscle and joint pain, nausea, vomiting, swollen glands and rashes.
- Chagas: The rare case of this has been found in the southern United States. Symptoms include swelling at the infection site, fever, fatigue, rash, eyelid swelling, body aches, headache, enlargement of the liver or spleen, swollen glands and loss of appetite.
Mold: After the floodwaters recede and the health issues are resolved, the most significant problem is going to be rebuilding our lives in Texas. Many of our homes have been partially or totally destroyed. With the water rising almost 50 inches, that is a solid four feet of pure destruction of property.
Pretty much everything below that benchmark has to be recycled, repurposed or tossed.Carpets and furniture with cloth upholstery should be dried as quickly as possible, as mold can appear as soon as 24-48 hours after floodwaters recede. Mold can leach into the fabric and start breeding there, leading to airborne infections. This will exacerbate allergies, leading to coughing and sneezing. It also will not help anyone with asthma or COPD. Dry them with fans, or take them outside and dry them in the sun. Then spray them with a disinfectant.Hard walls and floors should be cleaned with soap and water, and then thoroughly disinfected with bleach (one cup of bleach to five gallons of water). Boots and rubber gloves should be worn to reduce the risk of infection. Everything else should be carefully cleaned with a bleach solution.
Remember – do not turn on the electricity when you first return to your home. Try to return in the daytime, so you can keep the lights off and use a flashlight. Try to notice any strange smells like gas or something burning.
I hope this information helps you after Hurricane Harvey. We are Texas Strong, and we will rebuild.