Hurricane Harvey: Be careful, protect against illness as you clean up

2:13 p.m Monday, Aug. 28, 2017 Local
Reshma Kirpalani
On Saturday, David Spencer fished out the mat for his front door from the flooding in his front yard on Northeast Seventh Street in Smithville. Be careful when going back into your home after a flood. RESHMA KIRPALANI / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Some areas might finally be drying out, but the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey still can pose a threat.

The main worry is floodwater, which comes in contact with sewage and animal feces and so is filled with diseases such as hepatitis and E. coli.

“We treat it as if it was like raw sewage,” said Dr. Christopher Ziebell, emergency department medical director at Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas. Right now, the warmth of the floodwater is a great environment for the bacteria to multiply, he said.

Be especially cautious if your immune systen is compromised or you have an open wound.

Floodwater is also filled with hazardous chemicals from homes, industrial sites and underground tanks.

Here are some things to watch out for:

Drinking water safety

Worry about your clean water being in contact with floodwater. If you have a well that has been touched by floodwater, boil your water or use bottled water for the time being. If the outsides of your bottles of water were touched by floodwater, they need to be cleaned with a bleach solution before you drink from them.

Be aware of any boil water notices, especially in areas to the east of Austin that have been more affected.

If you do need to boil your water, it needs to be at a rolling boil for at least one minute before it is considered safe to drink. If you cannot boil it, put one-eighth of a teaspoon (about eight drops) of bleach into a gallon of water. Stir it and let it sit for 30 minutes.

Food safety

If your food or medications touched floodwater, throw them out. It’s not safe. Don’t try to make it safe.

If you lost power, your refrigerator can keep food cold for four hours if it is closed. If food reaches room temperature, it’s safe for two hours only.

Your freezer, with the door shut, can keep things cold for 24 to 48 hours. If the thermometer in the freezer gets to above 40 degrees, it’s probably no longer safe. If the food is partially frozen, it can be refrozen.

If there is a doubt, get rid of the food.

Floodwater safety

Avoid standing water if at all possible. You can’t see the hazards that might be lurking, such as sharp objects. Again, it’s filled with nasty bacteria and chemicals.

If you do come in contact with it, clean yourself off, especially before handling food or food products.

If you have an open wound, avoid going into standing water because of the bacteria involved.

If you do get cut, clean the wound well with soap as soon as possible.

If you haven’t had a tetanus shot in the past 10 years, get one, especially if you get cut by debris.

Everything that floodwater touched should be cleaned with a bleach/clean water solution.

Generator safety

If you’ve lost power and are using a generator, don’t use it inside your home. It can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

Mosquitoes

All this water is a feeding ground for mosquitoes. Fortunately, we’re at the end of the West Nile season, and we haven’t seen a lot of Zika so far, said Dr. Albert Gros, chief medical officer of St. David’s South Austin Medical Center. But do take these precautions:

The mosquitoes that cause Zika virus like small amounts of water. Dump out any flower pots, gutters or other containers that might be holding water.

The mosquitoes that cause West Nile like bigger areas of water, but they like standing water. If floodwater is moving, they probably won’t want to lay eggs there or their eggs won’t survive. Worry about areas that have stagnant water and alert your city if you see places that aren’t draining.

Use mosquito repellent in the coming weeks to keep yourself safe.

Cleanup

If you are going back into your house to clean it up, do these things:

Make sure the power is off if you still have standing water. Have an electrician shut it off for you.

Don’t be in a hurry. Be overly cautious about the dangers around you, and go slowly.

Dress for safety. Wear eye protection, closed-toed shoes, a face mask and gloves. Use a respirator if you are going to be in an enclosed space where a lot of floodwater has been.

Go during the day. You’re more likely to be able to see what’s around you.

Sources: Phil Huang, medical director of Austin Public Health; Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services; Dr. Albert Gros, chief medical officer of St. David’s South Austin Medical Center; Dr. Christopher Ziebell, emergency department medical director at Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas.

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