Helping after Hurricane Harvey


Protect yourself from injury and illness

 Photo: Walter Seigmund, Creative Commons

Unprecedented downpours from Hurricane Harvey left thousands looking for higher ground. As volunteers from near and far team together to help with evacuations and recovery efforts, experts say to proceed with caution.

“There are many hidden harms in flood waters that can cause sickness or injury,” Dan Elwell, MD, medical director of the Emergency Department said. “Using protective gear and properly handling contaminated objects can help keep you safe.”

Ascension Providence is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

Illness Prevention

 Flood waters are packed full of toxins, from chemical waste to animal waste, which can lead to illness. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies over 20 illnesses linked to severe weather natural disasters, including rotovirus, norovirus, E. coli and cryptosporidiosis, also known as crypto.

“Flood waters are contaminated with raw sewage which increases the risk of spreading a variety of infectious diseases,” Elwell said.

When it comes to illness prevention, hand hygiene is key. Wear protective gear such as rubber boots, gloves and a mask, and wash your hands regularly to keep germs at bay.  If clean water is not available, Elwell says to boil the water before use.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can also be used, as long as your hands are not visibly dirty.

Food can also carry bacteria, so throw away any food that has come into contact with flood water; that includes opened packaged foods that have been re-sealed and even un-opened packaged foods.

Air-tight packaged foods and canned foods are typically safe. Elwell says the packages themselves need to be cleaned with an antibacterial cleaner and rinsed well in clean water.

What about mosquito-borne diseases? Elwell says the risk of illness transmitted through mosquitoes often soars after flood waters begin receding.

While more common in other regions of the world, West Nile, Chikungunya, Dengue and Yellow Fever have all been found in the US. Symptoms can range from headache and altered mental state to severe pain, fever and even death.

Frequently apply mosquito repellent to keep those pesky mosquitoes away.

 Drowning and injury prevention

 High water with rapid currents pose obvious drowning risks to even the most seasoned swimmers; but Elwell says ankle-deep water can also be dangerous.

“Any flowing water above your ankles has the risk of undertow which could make you unsteady on your feet and cause injury and potential drowning,” Elwell said.

The murky water blocks sight of what’s lurking below, including sharp objects, holes and even wild animals such as snakes.

Elwell says being prepared and using a bit of caution can help you safely navigate the waters:

  • Wear thick, long pants and sturdy work boots to help protect your feet and legs.
  • Walk with a three to four foot long stick to help keep your balance. It can also help be an extra set of “eyes.”
  • Slip on a life jacket to help prevent drowning if you lose your footing.
  • Consider carrying a sharp knife in a sheath to free yourself or others from entanglement.
  • Cover any open wounds, and make sure they are properly cleaned once out of the water.

Being in the water too long can also pose a threat to your feet, Elwell warns. Prolonged exposure to damp conditions can lead to immersion foot syndrome, or trench foot.

To avoid symptoms such as tingling, itching, swelling, pain or numbness, change to dry shoes and socks as often as possible, Elwell said.  Propping up your feet and letting them air dry can also combat trench foot symptoms.

Mental health: an equal concern

 While oftentimes less thought about, anxiety and depression are common concerns after such a catastrophic event.

“It is an extreme emotional trauma to lose everything,” Elwell said. “Counseling can help cope with struggles of rebuilding.”

Those helping with relief efforts are not immune to the same strong emotional response.  Find a family member or friend to talk to or reach out to a medical professional for additional support. The CDC offers additional resources here.