Hurricane Harvey struck the gulf coast of Texas this weekend and has caused record-breaking, devastating damage throughout southern Texas and Louisiana. Even as it has been downgraded from a Category 4 hurricane, the tropical storm is still raging over the coast causing flooding and destruction in its path. The financial cost of the damage that won’t be fully realized until the aftermath of the storm becomes more apparent, is nothing compared to the potential health costs that will arise in the future days, weeks, and months.
The immediate affects of flooding can be seen all over the news. From drowning, hypothermia, to tragic accidents, such as this boy who was electrocuted while wading through floodwaters.Rising water levels near coastlines can invite wild animals into residential areas. Muddy water can obscure visibility of what if lying below the water, from animals or glass. The most serious consequence to flooding is death. Many people often underestimate the risks of flood waters, even if the level of the water is low or it appears calm. Thus, in addition to the deaths that occur through tragedy, such as the family that was swept away while trying to drive through flood waters, there are also changes to risk behavior as people underestimate the dangers of flooding.
Officials presiding over the areas affected by Hurricane Harvey are concerns about the public health risks created by the flood water in the South. The concern is so great that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price declared a public health emergency for the state of Texas over the weekend. The CDC is concerned about the release of chemicals caused by the flooding. Additionally, this morning, there was a chemical plant explosion that led to air contamination that may have affected the staff at the plant and surrounding area, as well as had the potential to release peroxide into the water. Chemicals contaminate flood water when the water washes through houses, garages, stores, factories and other facilities that contain chemical-containing products. Additionally, the floods have overwhelmed sewage drains, trash disposal systems, and have swept garbage from businesses and residences. This further contaminates water with sewage and trash, adding to the chemical composition of the flood waters. The contaminated water then comes into contact with food, clothing and fabrics, and citizens that have not evacuated. The chemicals can cause gastrointestinal symptoms, leading to immediate illness, or even leech into items and cause a long term impact. It is important to note that this water can cause damage to medications and food that is even stored in plastic packaging.
The moisture from the water and the loss of sanitation is an ideal environment for bacteria growth, which may lead to an increase in infections in the coming months. Salmonella, E. coli, pink eye, rashes, and upper respiratory symptoms are all risks of contaminated flood waters. Areas affected by flooding are at particular risk for food borne illnesses. Additionally, the decrease in sanitation in the affected areas can lead to increased risk for tetanus and MRSA. Additionally, there is a risk for outbreaks of parasites. The risk of the spread of these infections is exacerbated by the makeshift housing facilities in the area, as many people are living in shelters after extensive damage to their homes have made them unlivable. The close quarters make fecal-oral transmission of disease much more likely, creating a potential environment for an outbreak. Luckily, cholera and dengue fever are not endemic to the United States so the risk of these diseases are minimized, because the illness would have to be brought in from another location in order to grow or spread in the current conditions.
As the water recedes, there will be mold growth on appliances, toys, hard surfaces, fabric/porous surfaces, and building structures. The increase in mold and mildew can contribute to respiratory infections and further contaminate food and objects.
The standing water can also contribute to the breeding of insects, particularly mosquitos. Mosquitos thrive in wet environments and lay eggs in standing water, creating more mosquitoes. These insects are vectors of diseases and can lead to outbreaks. Notably, they carry Zika, a disease which has been a large concern over the past year for causing microcephaly in babies born to infected mothers. Additionally, after Hurricane Katrina, there was an increase in the number of cases of West Nile Virus.
In addition to the physical damages of the storm, there are still mental health consequences as residents of the affected cities face the potential loss of friends, family members and possessions. Additionally, the need to accept help from others or be dependent on a situation that evacuees feel they cannot control can lead to feelings of helplessness. The stress of being dislocated from their homes or separated from loved-ones can contribute to mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, or PTSD.
For those of you looking to help in the relief efforts, if you are unable to volunteer your time to organizations such as the Red Cross, there are numerous ways to make monetary donations or contribute physical items to the effort. Please note that following a suggested list is the most helpful way to extend your aid, rather than buying what you feel is the best gift of your own accord. To see donations options, please consider the Red Cross, Save the Children, or the Salvation Army.