Aftermath of Hurricane Harvey: Health Risks

The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey poses many short and long-term health risks to the public. Short-term dangers include floodwater injuries, the spread of infectious disease and a lack of drug access. Long-term dangers involve mosquito-transmitted diseases, damage to mental health and mold issues. According to the World Health Organization, 75% of floodwater fatalities are from drowning. Six inches, if moving fast enough, is enough to knock over an adult while only two feet of water is needed to wash away an SUV. People are unaware of the high risk of death from flooding. Flooding also brings about unwanted animals such as venomous snakes and fire ants who all get flooded out and seek higher ground.

Floods contain more than just rain and animals. The contents of sewage systems, such as human waste, spill out into the water. As seen from the flooding in Hurricane Katrina, exhumed corpses were sent afloat throughout the neighborhoods. The CDC reported many cases of MRSA, Vibrio pathogens, and biting mites. Vibrio pathogens, also known as flesh-eating bacteria, sickened many and killed six individuals. E. coli and a lack of drinkable water triggered many stomach diseases post, Hurricane Katrina.

Many of the residents that were forced to flee their homes due to flooding struggled to acquire medication which is a serious concern with those who have chronic conditions such as diabetes. Insulin was in demand in Houston, and those were unable to receive their daily doses on time went into crisis mode pretty quickly. During Hurricane Katrina, the hospitals were found to be treating those with chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma, rather than treating mass traumas. Although many consumer pharmacies remained open, delivery trucks were often restricted by traffic and road closures. CVS, in particular, had sent a mobile pharmacy unit en route to deliver prescriptions.

Although floods and winds wash away mosquito breeding pools, mosquitos recover once floodwaters recede. As seen from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the transmission, and prevalence of arboviruses such as Zika, dengue, and West Nile increases. Shelters have also been found to increase the prevalence of illness. Respiratory infections including tuberculosis were diagnosed in many evacuees in the shelters during Katrina.

Hurricanes have also been found to damage mental health. Survivors of Hurricane Katrina reported an increase in suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress, and depression. Mold is another post-hurricane concern. Mold has been found to trigger allergic reactions and exacerbate other health problems. CDC investigators found mold exposure was implicated in the deaths of four Southern University at New Orleans professors, all who worked in the same storm-damaged building. Health risks​ are not the only consequences that mold imposes, there is also an economic impact as well.

The public does not realize that the Gulf Coast is a very vulnerable area to infectious diseases. When looking at natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey, and Hurricane Katrina, the lack of preparedness is apparent. The hot and humid temperatures combined with high levels of poverty exacerbate the problems of climate change.

Crystal Kuruvilla is currently a second-year law student at DePaul University College of Law. Ms. Kuruvilla graduated from DePaul University with a degree in Nursing. She is an active member in the Jaharis Health Law Institute and will complete her law degree in May of 2019.