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As the heartbreaking images of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation circulate around the internet and across global news, newscasters and disaster workers reminisce of the lessons learned from other major storms, like Katrina and Sandy.
But no amount of prior lessons in disaster recovery can adequately prepare millions of people for the pain, suffering, and loss that Houston’s residents are beginning to experience.
From Tropical Storm to Hurricane
As this storm named Harvey was approaching Houston, it was first being named a “tropical storm” with no real knowledge about its impending destruction. On August 17, Harvey was named, but it wasn’t until Thursday the 24th that the storm earned the title “hurricane”. By Friday night at 10 PM, Harvey was upgraded to a category 4 hurricane as it hit Texas’ southeast coast between Port Aransas and Port O’Connor.
Early Dangers of Flooding
As I type this, some of the people in Houston are stuck in their homes, opting to live on the second floor while waters rise. Others have been forced out of their homes onto their rooftops and are awaiting evacuation. What are some of the dangers these people face?
Besides the obvious concerns of staying dry and not being swept away by floodwaters, here are some dangers that can be lurking in a flood:
- Electrical Dangers: As floodwaters are rising, the main power to a home or building should be disconnected. If this has not been done, inhabitants should take extreme precautions and never enter or touch the water in a room with electrical cords or outlets immersed in water. Even if the power is disconnected from a building, there is still a possibility of electrocution. This risk can come from a neighbor running a generator and back-feeding electricity into the damaged electrical grid. The only way to really be safe is to have the utility company, fire department, or a licensed electrician remove the building’s electrical meter from its socket.
- Gas Leaks: Maybe people have found a place of safety in a higher location in their home or building, but that doesn’t mean that the air is necessarily safe to breathe. Gas leaks often smell like rotten eggs or sulfur, and anyone who may be exposed should vacate the building. Some of the symptoms of natural gas exposure include:
- Headaches or migraines
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Nausea or vomiting
- Confusion and difficulty focusing
- Drowsiness and vision problems
- Air Quality: The air quality in a flooded building (and outdoors in a massive flood) tends to deteriorate rapidly. In their book, The War Within, Kurt and LeAnn Billings share their experience after their roof was breached during hurricane Katrina:
Unknown to us at the time, the wrath of Hurricane Katrina had disrupted untold numbers of mold spores, fragments, and other debris into the air. As the outside spore-laden air floated inside, spores germinated on the moist sheetrock paper. The early stages of mold growth were evident as the streaks on the walls darkened. Calls to our landlord went unheeded. Soon thereafter, the air quality inside our home noticeably deteriorated. It hurt to breathe the contaminant-filled air inside our home, just as it hurt to breathe the particulate-laden air outside. The ductwork of our air conditioning system moist with seepage from the hurricane-driven rains acted as an incubator for the airborne microorganisms.¹
Since it only takes 24-48 hours for mold to start to grow colonies on porous materials like drywall (which is essentially paper), the air indoors can get hazardous quickly.
- Flood Water: The water from floods can be filled with dangerous toxic chemicals, hazardous waste, and disease-causing micro-organisms resulting in health risks like Enteroviruses, E. coli, Giardiasis, Hepatitis B and C, Leptospirosis, Legionnaires’ disease, Norovirus, Rotavirus, and Shigellosis.
Although it may be tempting to enter the water to rescue objects or play in it outside, it’s best to stay safe and stay out!!
Flooding may also breech the safety of tap water, making it unsafe for consumption.
We realize how fragile life is and how dependent we are on clean water, food, and air during natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey. Our thoughts and prayers are with our friends who are in survival mode and living resiliently during this storm.
- Billings, Kurt; Billings, Lee Ann. Mold The War Within (Kindle Locations 605-615). Partners Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.