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Hurricane Katrina: Health Aftermath

What to Expect, How to Cope

Contaminated Food

In the days following a disaster, fresh food is in short supply. And with the power down, foods go bad very quickly. Any perishable food left out for more than two hours is unsafe. So is any food that has come into contact with floodwater.

Home-canned food that has come into contact with floodwater should not be eaten unless boiled. This holds true for all food containers with screw-top lids, snap lids, soda bottles, and other foods or beverages with crimped caps, flip-top, or snap-open tops.

Other canned foods can still make people sick if they come into contact with floodwater and are not disinfected before being opened. This means removing the label, washing the cans, and dipping them in a solution made of one cup of bleach and five gallons of water. It's a good idea to discard cans that have been tossed about by winds or water -- their seals may have weakened and allowed contamination or spoilage.

Babies may become ill if fed powdered formula prepared with treated water. Only preprepared, canned baby formula is considered completely safe.

Mosquito-Borne Disease

With power down, windows open, and many people exposed to the elements, mosquitoes will have a field day.

Mosquitoes carry a number of diseases. West Nile virus season was just peaking when Hurricane Katrina hit.

Injuries

An injury seen after almost every disaster is carbon monoxide poisoning. The deadly gas comes from generators, cars and trucks, charcoal grills, camp stoves, or any other gas- or charcoal-burning device used in a poorly ventilated area.

Fallen power lines also tend to be killers. Power lines often lurk beneath floodwaters.

As power comes back on, generators attached to home electrical circuits pose a fire hazard as well as a danger to line workers trying to restore power.

People working in floodwaters often get injured by chain saws. They also risk electrocution if they operate plug-in electric power tools while standing in water.

Dead Bodies

In the aftermath of disaster, rescuing living people takes precedence over dealing with the bodies of those who have died.

Although it is counterintuitive, dead bodies do not pose an immediate health threat. It's hard to get an infection from the body of a person killed in a disaster. There's no hurry to bury the dead until every effort is made to identify the bodies and contact surviving family members.

Emotional Illness

Humans are remarkably resilient beings. But the trauma of a disaster pushes us to our limits.

Normal feelings include panic, feeling out of control, anger, despair, anxiety, and disorientation. On the other hand, there may also be unusually strong feelings of brotherhood, generosity, and caring for others. All of these powerful emotions are most likely to surface in the days following the disaster.

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