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3 long-term health dangers that flooding can pose to affected communities

By Kevin Byrne, AccuWeather staff writer
September 25, 2018, 11:37:55 AM EDT

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Flooding can be one of the most difficult natural disasters to recover from because the risks don’t dissipate when conditions dry up and cleanup gets underway.

In the case of major flooding disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and most recently Hurricane Florence, floodwaters can take weeks to recede.

Floodwaters are known to be hazardous for a variety of reasons, but perhaps most importantly they are often contaminated thanks to chemicals or other pollutants mixing into the water.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Kenny Babb looks out over the water on his flooded property as the Little River continues to rise in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Linden, N.C., Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

(Photo/North Carolina Department of Transportation)

A stranded truck is nearly completely submerged in floodwaters in Brunswick County, North Carolina

(Photo/North Carolina Department of Transportation)

Interstate 95 near Lumberton, North Carolina, remained closed on Tuesday, Sept. 18.

(Photo/North Carolina Emergency Management)

Successful search & rescue missions were conducted by the Cary, NC, swift water rescue team in Harnett County.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Kenny Babb walks down a staircase into the water on his flooded property as the Little River continues to rise in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Linden, N.C., Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Dianna Wood, embraces her husband Lynn, as they look out over their flooded property in Linden, N.C., Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

(AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

People use a road as a boat ramp after Hurricane Florence struck the Carolinas Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, in Conway, S.C.

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

A man tries to get his dog out of a flooded neighborhood in Lumberton, N.C., Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The Lumber River overflows onto a stretch Interstate 95 in Lumberton, N.C., Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, following flooding from Hurricane Florence.

(AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, left, and U.S. Army Lt. Col. John McElveen look on as rescues take place inChesterfield County, South Carolina on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

(Photo/Asheville Fire Department)

Aerial imagery captures the extent of flooding around the Asheville, North Carolina, area.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Cars sit abandoned on a flooded street in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Lillington, N.C., Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

(AP Photo/Meg Kinnard

This Monday, Sept. 17, 2018 photo shows rising flood waters in the Pee Dee area in Marion County, S.C.

(Photo/North Carolina Department of Transportation)

This drone image shows Interstate 40 at Pender County, North Carolina, completely submerged.

(Reuters photo/Eduardo Munoz)

Sheds sit in flooded waters due to Hurricane Florence in Kinston, North Carolina, U.S., September 19, 2018.

David Goldman

The home of Kenny Babb is surrounded by water as he retrieves a paddle that floated away in Linden, N.C., Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

(AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

Floodwaters inundate a church after Hurricane Florence struck the Carolinas Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, in Conway, S.C.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

David Darden Jr., left, stands outside his mother's home with his wife Pam as they evacuate her in the aftermath of Florence in Spring Lake, N.C., Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

A resident stands on her pier looking out onto the rising Waccamaw River in Conway, S.C., Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

A house is surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Florence in Lumberton, N.C., Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.


Following Hurricane Florence, environmental concerns were raised after many hog farms became flooded. On those farms included several football field-sized lagoons where pig waste is disposed. There were also reports of coal ash spilling into the Cape Fear River from a dam breach at a power plant.

"It is important to stay vigilant against all the hazards that we’ll be facing that are associated with flooding, wind damage and mosquitoes," said North Carolina State Health Director Elizabeth Tilson, M.D., MPH. "While cleaning up outdoors, be sure you are up to date on your tetanus vaccine and avoid contact with floodwaters if you can."

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Following Hurricane Maria in 2017, a deadly outbreak of leptospirosis was reported in Puerto Rico. The bacterial disease is spread through the urine of infected animals.

Health officials recommend that if you have been exposed to floodwaters, it’s best to change into dry clothes as soon as possible to avoid the risk of skin problems. People with open wounds, cuts or scrapes should also take extra caution to avoid contracting tetanus disease or other infections.

Another issue that can lead to disease is people who are sheltered together due to evacuations, according to Dr. Mark Shelly, an infectious disease physician with Geisinger Heath System in Pennsylvania.

When groups of people of varying populations come together and crowded in a confined space, viruses, colds and gastrointestinal illnesses love that opportunity to be transmitted to other people, he said.

In addition to the immediate risks of disease, here are three lingering health concerns that should be identified after a flood.

Mold

After the floodwaters dry up, mold can grow and spread thanks to excess moisture and water left in the home.

If mold is present within your home, it can present a health risk, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The most important step to overcoming a mold infestation is to dry your home and remove the water-damaged items.

“If your home has mold, everything that has been contaminated must be cleaned properly and dried. Items that cannot be properly cleaned and dried within 24-48 hours must be removed and thrown away, including structural and personal property,” FEMA states.

An increase in mold spores in the air can be dangerous for those with respiratory illnesses, but anyone can be susceptible to medical issues from mold.

“Mold is primarily a risk to those who have allergies,” Shelly said. “Sometimes mold can cause an infection because its contaminating a wound.”

When removing contaminated materials, experts recommend wearing protective gear such as eye goggles, gloves, long-sleeved shirts and long pants, waterproof boots and filter face masks.

flooding house damage Florence

Wet clothing hangs in the closet of the Starlite Motel which was flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Spring Lake, N.C., Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)


Lack of clean water

When everyday life is disrupted, getting access to a sustained source of clean water is vital, not just for drinking purposes, but also for cleaning.

“The main problem that people have to be concerned about is the issue of clean water,” Shelly said.

During flooding situations, often times boil water advisories are issued for towns when it’s possible for contaminants to enter the drinking water supply.

Mosquitoes

“Mosquitoes can carry viruses and be an issue,” Shelly said.

Large populations of mosquitoes can emerge days to weeks after heavy rain or flooding, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

People are more at risk from getting bit by mosquitoes since they are outdoors cleaning up debris. In order to reduce the risk of mosquito bites, experts recommend wearing long-sleeved shirt and pants while outdoors, as well as using mosquito repellents that contain DEET.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that most of the mosquitoes that develop after a flood event are considered “nuisance mosquitoes” and generally do not spread viruses that make people sick.

The types of mosquitoes that can carry viruses include the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes which are known to cause the spread of Zika and dengue fever. These mosquitoes can often increase anywhere from two weeks to two months after a hurricane, according to the CDC.


For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.

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