Why you shouldn't return home too quickly after a hurricane evacuation

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

After spending hours on the road heading to a safer location under a mandatory evacuation order in the days before a hurricane strikes, it’s understandable that many people are eager to return home after the worst of the storm has passed.

However, emergency management experts recommend holding off on heading back into your area right away, as a number of hazards could still be present in the early days following a major storm.

“It’s important to listen to what the local authorities are saying,” said Sarah Custer, emergency management director for Clemson University. “They don’t want to keep people out any longer than absolutely necessary.”

While city, county and state officials don’t intend to bar people from returning to their homes for too long, they have a duty to evaluate their abilities to provide basic human needs and assess the community’s infrastructure post-storm, according to Custer.

Residents return home after Irma - AP Photo

A police officer directs motorists at a checkpoint as Florida Keys residents return to their homes in the upper keys, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, in Florida City, Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

“It may be that people evacuate to an area and things look great, but they don’t realize that back home, there may not be access to food, water, medical care or housing – things that emergency workers need the time to evaluate their ability to provide, both in the short and longer term,” she said.

Workers will also need time to assess transportation needs in an area, whether people can communicate and if the area has safe water and sewer utility services.

“If you don’t have water, or you can’t flush the toilet or take a shower and have it actually drain properly, then it’s certainly not safe to bring people back in,” Custer said.

There’s a strong likelihood of water contamination after a major storm due to the increase in bacteria and viruses that are normally filtered out, said Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president and regional medical director at International SOS, a medical and travel security services firm.

“The filtration processes get overwhelmed with flooding, so people forget that and turn on their water supply, drink or cook with that water, only to find out that they’re using a bowl of E. coli or some other hazardous bacteria, which could result in serious gastrointestinal infections,” Quigley said.

In addition, power failures and downed lines are likely to be a problem shortly after a hurricane, posing the potential danger of electrocution.

People attempting to return to evacuated areas would also have to deal with curfews and road closures in certain areas that might be blocked by debris, trees, power lines or floodwaters, said John Rendeiro, vice president of global security and intelligence at International SOS.

“We’ve all heard stories of people who drive into water without really knowing how deep it is, and they’re swept away,” Rendeiro said. “Lives have been lost quite frequently in those kinds of situations.”

Food and fuel may also be limited as stores remain closed, out of supplies and possibly damaged. Flooding conditions could potentially worsen as storm surges continue and rivers crest, according to Rendeiro.

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A home might be uncomfortably warm after a hurricane knocks out power in an area, which can take weeks to get up and running. In these cases, people are more likely to use generators, and if used improperly, these have often resulted in death from carbon monoxide poisoning, according to Quigley.

Lack of electricity can also pose issues for those with chronic medical conditions who may rely on machines that aid in treatment, Quigley said.

Mosquitoes can pose a real health hazard in the days after a major storm. “Although they get wiped out with the initial hurricane, the subsequent stagnant water that occurs in flooded areas will be great breeding grounds,” Quigley said.

Experts advise monitoring the National Hurricane Center’s (NHC) website for information during and after these storms and being ready to adjust travel plans accordingly.

“Once someone’s out of an area and into a safe place, it’s really best not to go back too soon,” Rendeiro said. “It really is important to listen to local and national authorities for timing on returning to that area.”

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

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