Public Health Concerns and Dangers After a Hurricane

The damage caused by Hurricane Harvey hitting Houston in early September has given rise to public health concerns in the hurricane’s aftermath. Even though the storm rained many inches onto Houston and its metropolitan area within a short amount of time, the after-effects of the storm surge can last for months and threaten public health. With the persistent flooding comes sewage, animal and human corpses, spoiled food, and industrial chemical spillage into the waters, creating a terrible aftershock for the survivors.

Public health experts caution about the dangers lurking in the regions recently attacked by the hurricane. There is an onslaught of new bacteria, viruses, and fungi in the contaminated areas left by the hurricane, along with new mosquito breeding areas. The public may need information about receiving immunizations for these diseases as soon as possible while also how to avoid other potential dangers. Some helpful information has been posted by the Centers for Disease Control on its website. As many residents are forced to evacuate to public shelters, the people have to be aware of their surroundings. Floodwaters contain many contaminants and sewage, which can contain fecal matter and all sorts of debris from unknown areas. Also, potentially deadly toxins and chemicals can appear in large intervals, which may complicate treatment upon infection, depending on the bacteria and other health conditions the patients may have.

Bacteria that manifests in flood waters include Escherichia coli (E. Coli) can cause food poisoning and infections in the bladder; Shigella can cause digestive problems; and Legionella is the cause of Legionnaires’ disease, an infection that can cause pneumonia normally found in fresh water contaminating air conditioners. Making matters worse, Vibrio vulnificus, a flesh-eating bacteria that is naturally found in the Gulf of Mexico, may see a spike in its range after the recent storm surge. Tuberculosis, an airborne bacterial disease that affects the lungs and spreads through coughing or sneezing, remains the biggest health concern in shelters. The people in Houston and surrounding area should protect themselves against tuberculosis by obtaining a tetanus shot, especially if they have exposed an open wound to the flood water.

Further, a potential lack of drinking water is yet another concern for Houston residents. The Mayor of Houston, as well as leaders of established shelters, have declared their water supplies are fine, but for the smaller communities, it is unknown whether their water supplies are contaminated. Local authorities have told their residents to drink bottled or boiled water to be safe and to avoid unwanted diseases.

The summer months also mark the peak period of Houston’s mosquito season. While floodwaters have washed away many mosquito breeding sites initially, the recession of the high levels of water will result in a sharp increase of new breeding sites for months after the floods. Similar results occurred in a similar climate after Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans area a dozen years ago.

Moreover, other potential public health threats such as injuries are not uncommon. These can range from back injuries from moving heavy equipment to carbon monoxide poisoning to electrocution to heat stress. Most of these unforeseen injuries occur because people are overeager to return to their homes, not knowing of the new dangers that may arise from the flood dangers of the past. The Center for Disease Control has published a link on what residents should do when re-entering their homes.

In addition, not all damages felt will be physical. Some survivors may experience emotional distress having witnessed and survived a catastrophe. While this is a normal feeling, in some cases the symptoms can linger. If left for too long, excessive worrying, rapid heart rates, and difficulty sleeping can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder in some people, and experts suggest that these people should get assistance in trying to overcome this anxiety as soon as possible.

With Hurricane Irma bearing down on Florida, and the Atlantic hurricane season at its peak, the concern for flood damage for coastal areas will make many coastal residents anxious as the seasons change, and emergency supplies will be stretched thin for the hardest-hit areas. The Center for Disease Control has also set up a website​ for Floridians that provides similar safety methods and recovery tips as well. Armed with this information, the people should be well-educated with hurricane awareness to help themselves as well as assist others in surviving the aftermath of a regional natural tragedy.

Tammie Ng is currently a second-year law student at DePaul University College of Law. Ms. Ng has a Bachelor of Science degree in Health Science and a minor in Music. She is a fellow of the Health Law Institute and a staff writer on DePaul Journal of Health Care Law.