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Hurricane Harvey: The Health Dangers Hidden in High Water

Topdown picture of Hurricane Harvey damage

It has been roughly one month since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas. Although the water has receded and the news cycles have moved on to cover the next catastrophe, Houston has just begun the long journey of cleaning up after this horrific storm. Hurricane Harvey was so damaging to the city because of the enormous quantity of rain it dumped onto Eastern Texas over the course of less than a week.

Contrary to popular belief, or at least to old Western movies, Texas is not all tumbleweeds and desert. Houstonians are used to storms and heavy rain, and the drainage systems in Harris County, which includes Houston, are built to withstand Eastern Texas’s rainy seasons. In fact, an average of 49.76 inches of rain fall in Houston every year.[1] The issue with Harvey was that in 5 days, from Friday, August 25th to Tuesday, August 29th, 45.74 inches of rain fell in Houston.[2] This means that roughly the same amount of rain that falls over 365 days was unloaded onto the Houston metroplex over the duration of 120 hours. The bayous and waterways made for drainage could not handle all this water, and with the creeks and rivers overflowing it just continued to rise and flooded business, homes, and schools across the county.

The flooding that was caused by this incredible amount of rain has introduced or exacerbated several health risks in Houston. When most people witness flooding they just register the danger of drowning, but in fact there are many less obvious and perhaps even "hidden" health consequences that large quantities of rain and standing water can introduce to a community. The following are a few of these risks and ways to keep you and your family safe and healthy following this disaster.

Issue: Sewage Brings in Infectious Diseases
Often flooding in an area can cause sewage to spill out of its designated drainage systems and make its way into residential areas or even into individual homes. This sewage can carry a number of infectious diseases and can spread illnesses throughout a community. This was apparent after Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast at the end of August in 2005. After this disaster, the CDC reported 30 cases of MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus bacterium, and two dozen cases of “flesh-eating” Vibrio pathogens.[3] While no cases of MRSA have been reported in Houston as of today, there has been one fatal case of necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating bacterium, reported in Kingwood, a suburb of Houston. [4] The danger of contracting an illness from sewage is very real, and can be fatal if not treated quickly.

According to the CDC, the best way to prevent contamination by infectious illnesses due to sewage is to wear protection, like rubber boots and gloves while cleaning up standing water. They also recommend washing contaminated clothes separately in hot water, throwing out items in your home that cannot be disinfected, like rugs, drywall, and carpeting, and disinfecting toys with a 5-gallon water to one cup bleach solution before allowing your children to play with them.[5]

Issue: Standing Water = Mosquito Breeding Ground
The stagnant flood water that remained after Harvey passed became the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes to lay their eggs. Mosquitoes are known to transmit many infectious diseases like: Zika Virus, malaria, Dengue fever, yellow fever, and West Nile virus. Houstonians are at a higher risk of contracting one of these diseases directly after a hurricane because of the increased mosquito population, and the increased amount of time they spend outdoors cleaning up their damaged communities.

The first thing Houstonians should do when they return to their homes is drain all standing water that might have collected in flowerpots, vases, pool covers, and other containers. To protect from bites, the CDC recommends wearing long sleeve shirts and long pants, as well as using EPA approved insect repellents that contain DEET or Picaridin.[6] When using any insect repellent remember to read and follow all label instructions in order to use the product properly.

Issue: Mold Contamination in Your Home
Mold does the most damage when flood water is allowed to sit in a home for an extended period of time. This may have occurred to Houstonian homeowners who evacuated the city. Over a period of a few weeks a damp wall or carpet could turn into a hotbed of mold growth because of the heat and humidity in the area. Mold spores are released into the air and inhaling them can cause several uncomfortable medical issues like itchy and watery eyes, itchy throat or a runny nose. Individuals who have asthma or respiratory problems can have much more serious side effects if they are exposed to mold spores.

The best way to stop the spread of mold, or prevent it from spreading in the first place is to dry the affected area as quickly as possible- between 24-48 hours after water exposure. The EPA suggests scrubbing any mold infected areas with water and detergent until the mold is gone and throwing away any porous objects that cannot be disinfected and dried completely, like furniture, ceiling tiles, and carpet.[7] Make sure to wear protective layers when cleaning up mold, and if the mold has spread more than 10 square feet, contact a professional to remove it. 

Just because the rain has stopped and the water levels have subsided doesn't mean Houston is out of the woods yet. Not only will it take weeks, months, and possibly years to rebuild their community, but until the residential areas are rid of sewage, mosquito populations decline, and mold spores are removed from homes, offices, and schools, Houstonian's health will be at risk. If you or anyone you know is dealing with one or more of these issues please take immediate action, and follow these tips to stay safe and healthy throughout your clean-up efforts. For more information check out ACE's FAQ materials on removing mold from your home and protecting yourself from mosquitoes

[1] [2] [3]

[4] [5] [6] [7]

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