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Health and Safety After a Storm

Quick Links: Food Safety      Water Supply      Re-entering Flooded Home      First Aid
  Injury Prevention      Stress      Animals      Hand Washing      Mosquitos

When a major storm hits, the dangers don't end just because the storm has passed. There are things to remember to keep yourself and your family safe and healthy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides general rules:

  • Do not drive through flooded roads. Cars can be swept away or break down.
  • Listen to announcements in local media (radio, TV or newspaper) to find out if it's safe to use tap water. Follow the instructions given for using water.
  • If you do not know whether the water is safe to use, boil water before you use it for anything (brushing teeth, cooking, drinking or bathing).
  • Throw away any food that may have been touched by flood water or may be unsafe to eat because of power loss.
  • Use canned baby formulas that are ready-to-use (you don't have to add anything to them). Do not prepare infant formulas with water that has been treated with chemicals.
  • Be aware of possible structural, electrical or gas-leak hazards as you return to and begin cleaning homes or other buildings.
  • To prevent growth of some bacteria, viruses, mold and mildew that can cause illness, disinfect and dry out buildings and the items in them.
  • Use battery-powered lanterns and flashlights instead of candles.
  • Some small engines, stoves, generators, lanterns, gas ranges put off carbon monoxide gas and should only be used in well-ventilated areas. Burning charcoal and wood may also emit dangerous fumes.
  • Protect yourself from mosquitoes: wear long-sleeved and long-legged clothing and use insect repellents that contain DEET.

How to store food safely

Your refrigerator will keep foods cool for about 4 hours without power if it is unopened. Add block or dry ice to your refrigerator if the electricity will be off longer than four hours. While the power is out, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to keep food cold for as long as possible.

Thawed food can usually be eaten if it is still "refrigerator cold," or re-frozen if it still contains ice crystals. Discard any food that has been at temperatures greater than 40 degrees Fahrenheit for 2 hours or more and any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture. When in doubt, throw it out.

If the power is out for longer than 4 hours, follow the guidelines below:

  • Use dry ice, if available. 25 pounds of dry ice will keep a ten-cubic-foot freezer below freezing for 3-4 days. Use care when handling dry ice and wear dry, heavy gloves to avoid injury.
  • For the freezer section: A freezer that is half full will hold food safely for up to 24 hours. A full freezer will hold food safely for 48 hours. Do not open the freezer door if you can avoid it.
  • For the refrigerated section: Pack milk, other dairy products, meat, fish, eggs, gravy and spoilable leftovers into a cooler surrounded by ice. Discard this food if it is held at a temperature greater than 40 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 2 hours.
  • Use a digital quick-response thermometer to check the temperature of your food right before you cook or eat it. Throw away any food that has a temperature of more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Home canned foods and food containers with screw-caps, snap-lids, crimped tops, etc should be discarded if they have come in contact with floodwater. Undamaged, commercially canned foods can be saved after disinfection.

Feed infants only pre-prepared canned baby formula.

The water supply

Major storms, especially if accompanied by a tidal surge or flooding, can contaminate the public water supply. Drinking contaminated water may cause illness. You cannot assume that the water in the affected area is safe to drink.

Listen for public announcements about the safety of the municipal water supply. Safe water for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene includes bottled, boiled or treated water. Your state or local health department can make specific recommendations for boiling or treating water in your area. Here are some general rules concerning water for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene. Remember:

  • Do not use contaminated water to wash dishes, brush your teeth, wash and prepare food, wash your hands, make ice or make baby formula. If possible, use baby formula that does not need to have water added. You can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to wash your hands.
  • If you use bottled water, be sure it came from a safe source. If you do not know that the water came from a safe source, you should boil or treat it before you use it. Use only bottled, boiled or treated water until your supply is tested and found safe.
  • Boiling water, when practical, is the preferred way to kill harmful bacteria and parasites. Bringing water to a rolling boil for 1 minute will kill most organisms.
  • When boiling water is not practical, you can treat water with chlorine tablets, iodine tablets or unscented household chlorine bleach (5.25 percent sodium hypochlorite):
    • If you use chlorine tablets or iodine tablets, follow the directions that come with the tablets.
    • If you use household chlorine bleach, add 1/8 teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water if the water is clear. For cloudy water, add 1/4 teaspoon of bleach per gallon. Mix the solution thoroughly and let it stand for about 30 minutes before using it.

Note: Treating water with chlorine tablets, iodine tablets or liquid bleach will not kill parasitic organisms.

Use a bleach solution to rinse water containers before reusing them. Use water storage tanks and other types of containers with caution. For example, fire truck storage tanks and previously used cans or bottles may be contaminated with microbes or chemicals. Do not rely on untested devices for decontaminating water.

If there is flooding along with a storm, the waters may contain fecal material from overflowing sewage systems and agricultural and industrial waste. Although skin contact with floodwater does not, by itself, pose a serious health risk, there is risk of disease from eating or drinking anything contaminated with floodwater.

Do not allow children to play in floodwater areas. Wash children's hands frequently (always before meals) and do not allow children to play with floodwater-contaminated toys that have not been disinfected. You can disinfect toys using a solution of one cup of bleach in five gallons of water.

Re-entering a post flooded home
  • Turn the power off to the house if you can do so from a dry location.  Otherwise, have an electrician turn your power off. If the house has been closed up for several days, enter briefly and open doors and windows to allow the house to air out for at least 30 minutes.  (Presume that the house has been contaminated with mold and possibly sewage.  Mold spores can become airborne.)
  • Dry home out as soon as possible
  • Wear Rubber boots and waterproof glasses or goggles as well as outer clothing (long-sleeved shirts and long pants) that can be easily removed and laundered or discarded.  Consider wearing an N95 respirator.
  • If using a fan for drying, place it as to blow the air outwards so not to spread the mold.
  • Have your home heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system checked out and cleaned  by a professional before you turn it on.
  • Prevent water from re-entering your home.
  • People at Greatest risk from mold:
    • Infants and Children
    • People with Asthma or allergies
    • Elderly
    • People with weakened immune systems
  • Possible Health Effects of Mold Exposure:
    • Stuffy nose                              
    • Irritated eyes                           
    • Wheezing
    • Shortness of breath                   
    • Skin reactions
  • Look for discolored walls or ceilings and there might be a musty earthy smell.
  • Shorten the amount of time that you are in the area.
  • Minimize the spread of airborne MOLD spores:
    • Decrease foot traffic                  
    • Avoid dry sweeping
    • Avoid rapid movements            
    • Cover moldy objects prior to removing them
  • Remove porous non-cleanable items that have been wet for more than 48 hours such as carpeting and padding, upholstery, wallpaper , etc.
  • After completing clean up, wash your hands with soap and water.

How to perform first aid for injuries

First aid is extremely important when exposure to waters potentially contaminated with human, animal or toxic wastes.

  • Immediately clean out all open wounds and cuts with soap and clean water.
  • Apply an antibiotic ointment to discourage infection.
  • If a wound develops redness, swelling or drainage, seek immediate medical attention.
  • If you are injured, contact a physician to determine the necessary type of treatment (for example, need for a tetanus shot).

How to prevent injury after a major storm

When the wind and waters recede, people in the areas affected by a major storm will continue to face a number of hazards associated with cleanup activities. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) offers the following guidelines for preventing injury:

  • For most work in flooded areas, wear hard hats, goggles, heavy work gloves and watertight boots with steel toe and insole (not just steel shank).
  • Wear earplugs or protective headphones to reduce risk from equipment noise. Equipment such as chain saws, backhoes and dryers may cause ringing in the ears and subsequent hearing damage.
  • Beware of electrical hazards
    • If water has been present anywhere near electrical circuits and electrical equipment, turn off the power at the main breaker or fuse on the service panel. Do not turn the power back on until electrical equipment has been inspected by a qualified electrician.
    • Never enter flooded areas or touch electrical equipment if the ground is wet, unless you are certain that the power is off. NEVER handle a downed power line.
    • When using gasoline and diesel generators to supply power to a building, switch the main breaker or fuse on the service panel to the "off" position prior to starting the generator.
    • If clearing or other work must be performed near a downed power line, contact the utility company to discuss de-energizing and grounding or shielding of power lines. Extreme caution is necessary when moving ladders and other equipment near overhead power lines to avoid inadvertent contact.
  • Avoid carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that is poisonous to breathe. During flood cleanup, operate all gasoline-powered devices such as pumps, generators and pressure washers outdoors and never bring them indoors. This will help to ensure your safety from carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Prevent musculoskeletal injury. Special attention is needed to avoid back injuries associated with manual lifting and handling of debris and building materials. To help prevent injury:
    • Use teams of two or more to move bulky objects.
    • Avoid lifting any material that weighs more than 50 pounds (per person)
    • Use proper automated-assist lifting devices
  • Beware of structural instability. Never assume that water-damaged structures or ground are stable. Buildings that have been submerged or have withstood rushing flood waters may have suffered structural damage and could be dangerous.
    • Don't work in or around any flood-damaged building until it has been examined and certified as safe for work by a registered professional engineer or architect.
    • Assume all stairs, floors and roofs are unsafe until they are inspected.
    • Leave immediately if shifting or unusual noises signal a possible collapse.
  • Avoid hazardous materials. Flood waters can dislodge tanks, drums, pipes and equipment, which may contain hazardous materials such as pesticides or propane.
    • Do not attempt to move unidentified dislodged containers without first contacting the local fire department or hazardous materials team.
    • If working in potentially contaminated areas, avoid skin contact or inhalation of vapors by wearing appropriate protective clothing and respirators.
    • Frequently and thoroughly wash skin areas that may have been exposed to pesticides and other hazardous chemicals.
  • Be prepared for fires. At least two fire extinguishers, each with a UL rating of at least 10A, should be provided at every cleanup job. Fire can pose a major threat to an already badly damaged flood area for several reasons:
    • inoperative fire protection systems
    • hampered fire department response
    • inoperable firefighting water supplies
    • flood-damaged fire protection systems
  • Prevent drowning. When entering moving water, you are at risk for drowning, regardless of your ability to swim. Because those in vehicles are at greatest risk of drowning, it is important to comply with all hazard warnings on roadways and to avoid driving vehicles or heavy equipment into water of an unknown depth. You should avoid working alone and wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket when working in or near flood waters.
  • Reduce risk of thermal stress. While cleaning up after a major storm, you are at risk for developing health problems from working in hot or cold environments. To reduce heat-related risks:
    • Drink a glass of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes.
    • Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing
    • Work during the cooler hours of the day.
    • To reduce cold-related risks when standing or working in water which is cooler than 75 degrees F (24 degrees C):
      • Wear rubber boots.
      • Ensure that clothing and boots have adequate insulation.
      • Take frequent breaks out of the water.
      • Change into dry clothing when possible.

Keep both prescription and over the counter medications in your emergency disaster kit. Also maintain a supply of band aids or other dressing materials.

Continued long hours of work, combined with exhaustion, can create a highly stressful situation during cleanup. People working on storm and flood cleanup can reduce their risks of injury and illness in several ways:

  • Set priorities for cleanup tasks and pace the work. Avoid physical exhaustion.
  • Resume a normal sleep schedule as quickly as possible.
  • Be alert to emotional exhaustion or strain. Consult family members, friends or professionals for emotional support.

How to cope with stress after a major storm

The days and weeks after a major storm are going to be rough. In addition to your physical health, you need to take some time to consider your mental health as well. Remember that some sleeplessness, anxiety, anger, hyperactivity, mild depression or lethargy are normal, and may go away with time. If you feel any of these symptoms acutely, seek counseling.

Your state and local health departments will help you find the local resources, contact this hospital for health care providers that you may need.

Individual responses to a threatening or potentially-traumatic event may vary. Emotional reactions may include feelings of fear, grief and depression. Physical and behavioral responses might include nausea, dizziness and changes in appetite and sleep pattern, as well as withdrawal from daily activities. Responses to trauma can last for weeks to months before people start to feel normal again.

Seek medical care if you become injured, feel sick or experience stress and anxiety.

There are many things you can do to cope with traumatic events, including:

  • Keep as many elements of your normal routine incorporated into the disaster plans as possible, including activities to allay children's fears.
  • Be aware that you may have fewer resources to attend to your day-to-day conflicts, so it is best to resolve what you can ahead of time.
  • Turn to family, friends and important social or religious contacts to set-up support networks to help deal with the potential stressors.
  • Let your child know that it is okay to feel upset when something bad or scary happens.
  • Encourage your child to express feelings and thoughts, without making judgments.

Dealing with wild and domestic animals in a disaster

Be cautious of wild or stray animals. They may be disoriented and dangerous following a major storm or flood. Try to confine the animal without getting at risk of being bitten. Call the Animal Control agency in your county.

Wild and domestic animals may escape or be killed in disasters. Escaped animals may wander onto land where they could:

  • contaminate water supplies
  • cause a build-up of manure
  • overgraze sensitive ecosystems
  • cause damage to crops

Decaying carcasses create biologic waste and attract flies and rodents, which can spread disease. They may also contaminate groundwater and cause bad odors. Animal carcasses should be disposed of as soon as possible to avoid creating a health hazard to animals or humans. Contact your local animal control department or local health department for specific disposal guidance.

Hand washing in emergency situations

After an emergency, it can be difficult to find running water. However, it is still important to wash your hands to avoid illness. It is best to wash your hands with soap and water but when water isn't available, you can use alcohol-based products made for washing hands. Wash your hands with soap and water that has been boild (and cooled) or disinfected.

Preventing mosquito borne diseases

After a major storm, mosquitoes may breed in standing water during the summer and autumn months. The easiest and best way to avoid mosquito borne diseases is to prevent mosquito bites.

  • When you are outdoors, use insect repellents containing DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide). Follow the directions on the package.
  • Many mosquitoes are most active at dusk and dawn. Be sure to use insect repellent and wear long sleeves and pants at these times or consider staying indoors during these hours. Light-colored clothing can help you see mosquitoes that land on you.
  • Make sure you have good screens on your windows and doors to keep mosquitoes out.
  • Get rid of mosquito breeding sites by emptying standing water from flower pots, buckets and barrels. Change the water in pet dishes and replace the water in bird baths weekly. Drill holes in tire swings so water drains out. Keep children's wading pools empty and on their sides when they aren't being used.

More Information
If you do not know whether the water is safe to use, boil water before you use it for anything (brushing teeth, cooking, drinking, bathing, etc).

Food: When in doubt, throw it out!

Keep both prescription and over the counter medications in your emergency disaster kit.

Emergency Preparedness and Response >>

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