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How to avoid drinking contaminated water after a hurricane

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

When a hurricane crashes onto shore with destructive winds and deadly storm surge, its threat to clean water supply is a major concern.

Consuming contaminated water can lead to serious health problems, including gastrointestinal illness and reproductive issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Contaminants can also cause diseases such as dysentery, cholera and hepatitis, according to FEMA.

The CDC states that children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are particularly at risk.

Taking extra caution with water consumption is essential after heavy inland flooding, which could contaminate drinking water and impact wastewater utilities.

Drinking water

(Photo/Martin Barraud/Getty Images)

Pipes broken by washouts or uprooted trees can lead to sewage spills or low water pressure, which puts utilities at risk for contamination, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“As long as the utility maintains good pressure, the water is less likely to be contaminated from soil and storm water,” said Ron Trygar, senior training specialist at the University of Florida Training, Research and Education for Environmental Occupations (UF TREEO).

Lack of pressure in the water system increases the likelihood of dirty storm water leaking into the lines, he said.

According to the EPA, more than 690 drinking water and wastewater utilities across 11 states and Washington, D.C., were impacted in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

In the two months following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the EPA found no occurrences of waterborne illnesses or diseases resulting from contaminated drinking water in some states, including Mississippi.

Thousands of people in Haiti were not as fortunate after Hurricane Matthew devastated the country in 2016 as a Category 4 storm.

In the weeks after the hurricane, lack of clean drinking water led to a cholera outbreak, according to the Associated Press.

“The thing to remember is that after a hurricane, any water is potentially contaminated, especially from the faucet,” said Richard Lowe, author of "Real-World Survival."

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Water that appears dark and cloudy or has a smell is likely tainted.

Lowe recommended steering clear of unsafe water, even for personal hygiene.

“[The water] might have chemical contaminants that could hurt your skin or cause problems with allergies or even worse,” he said.

FEMA considers melted ice cubes, liquid from canned fruit and vegetables and water drained from pipes or a water heater to be safe sources.

Utilities will often issue boil water advisories before a storm makes landfall or when the water is possibly contaminated.

Boiling water will kill most types of disease-causing organisms that could be present, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Treating water after a hurricane

“If people do actually have water pressure out of their sinks, they’re told to make sure to boil that water before consuming it,” Trygar said.

It is recommended that water be boiled for one minute and left to cool inside clean containers.

Liquid chlorine bleach or water purification tablets can also be used to disinfect water.

Consumers should avoid all contact with the water supply if a Do Not Use notice is issued, as boiling will not destroy all contaminants, according to the Water Quality Research Foundation.

Hurricane Katrina flooding

After Hurricane Katrina, workers attempt to change a valve on a drinking water line which had burst, causing a flood in Gulfport, Miss., on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

“There’s the potential for other things to be in there that could be more concentrated if you boil the water,” Trygar said.

Bottled water that hasn’t been exposed to floodwaters is recommended, in this case.

For drinking and personal hygiene, FEMA recommends storing at least three days' worth of water per person in a cool, dark place.

People living in warmer climates may need to double their bottled water supply, according to FEMA.

Well water could also be contaminated due to flooding.

Flooded wells should be tested and disinfected after the water levels go down, according to the FDA.

For more safety and preparedness tips, visit

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