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Health Risks After a Hurricane

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 30, 2021

After a hurricane or other big storm rips through your community, you need to take steps to make sure you and your family stay safe. Storms can cause damage that makes your home or surroundings hazardous. And the trauma of dealing with the effects of a hurricane may take a toll on your physical and mental health.

Stay Away from Floodwaters

Pay attention to news and warnings about flooded areas and roads. Excess water makes it unsafe to drive or walk. If it's deep enough, it can even sweep away vehicles.

If you must work or walk around floodwaters, wear a life jacket -- especially if the water is deep or moving.

Don’t Touch or Use Wet Electrical Devices

If an electrical appliance or device was plugged in during the storm and appears to be wet, don’t touch it or turn it on. It could electrocute you. Turn off your power at the breaker if it's still plugged in, and don't use it until an electrician has checked it.

Also turn off your main power supply at the service panel or breaker if water came near your home's circuits or electrical equipment. Have an experienced electrician look at it before you turn it back on.

Use Flashlights Instead of Candles

If a hurricane or other storm knocks out your power, use battery-powered flashlights instead of candles if possible.

If you must use candles, keep an eye on them whenever they're lit. Keep them away from anything that might catch fire easily. If you have a fire extinguisher, keep it handy. And make sure everyone in your household knows how to use it.

Watch Out for Contaminated Water

Floodwaters may contain items and substances harmful for your health, such as:

  • Chemicals
  • Human waste
  • Animal waste
  • Dead animals
  • Pests and bugs
  • Germs that cause infectious disease
  • Sharp objects like glass or metal fragments

Avoid contact with contaminated water. If you do touch it, wash your hands with soap and clean water if available. If not, use alcohol-based wipes and sanitizers.

Floods and hurricanes may also contaminate your drinking water. Pay attention to advisories on contaminated tap water. If you suspect contamination, or if your water smells or tastes weird, don’t use it to:

Choose bottled, boiled, or treated water to drink, cook, and wash with.

Watch Out for Contaminated Food

If stormwater has come in contact with food in your house, throw it away. Foods can be contaminated even if they smell, taste, or look fine.

If you had a power outage, throw away any foods that smell, look moldy, or have a weird texture. if you have the slightest doubt about whether a food is safe, it’s best to throw it away.

Stay Clear of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

If you’ve had a power outage, you might turn to alternative power supplies for electricity or cooking. These can include fuel-burning devices like portable generators, charcoal grills, and camp stoves.

But using these devices could lead to a buildup of carbon monoxide (CO) in your home. It’s an odorless gas that can cause sudden illness or death. To avoid CO poisoning:

  • Never keep coal- or fuel-burning equipment like generators or stoves inside your house. Keep them outside and at least 20 feet away from any window, door, or vent. Use an extension cord to keep a safe distance.
  • Never use a camping stove or charcoal grill inside a house, camper, or tent.
  • Use a battery-operated CO detector whenever you use a generator. Make sure its batteries are fresh.
  • If your CO detectors start to beep, open all windows and leave your home.

If you notice any symptoms from CO poisoning, call 911 or head to the nearest hospital right away. Symptoms include headache, dizziness, nausea, chest pain, and confusion.

Stay Away from Damaged Buildings and Power Lines

If a building looks damaged, don’t enter until local authorities have checked it for safety. If you hear strange noises, or notice shifting or movements, the building may be about to collapse. Get out right away and move to a safe distance to avoid debris.

Watch out for fallen or hanging power lines. If you notice any, report them to your local electric company.

Protect Yourself from Bugs and Other Pests

Pooling stormwater attracts bugs and other pests like mosquitoes. Use bug repellents or sprays with DEET or picaridin to avoid bites and possible infections. Wear clothes that cover your arms, legs, and feet to protect yourself.

If you see a dead animal, call local authorities or the public health department to report it.

Take Steps to Protect Your Health

You're at higher risk for injury during and after a hurricane. Use first aid to treat your wounds as soon as possible. This helps to heal them and prevent infection.

If you're ordered to evacuate the area, take all your medications with you. If your medication requires refrigeration and you lose power for a day or more, throw it out unless its label says not to. If your life depends on a refrigerated drug and you can't keep it cool, use it at room temperature. Get a new supply as soon as possible.

Take Care of Your Emotional Health

Natural disasters like hurricanes and severe storms can stir up a range of emotions, including anxiety, stress, and fear.

Physical symptoms can result, including:

Here are a few tips to help your emotional health after a storm:

  • Stick to your daily routine as much as possible.
  • Rest, eat properly, and get some exercise.
  • Connect with family, friends, and community members who've been through something similar.
  • If your symptoms last more than a few weeks and get in the way of your daily life, reach out to a mental health professional for help.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “Stay Safe After a Hurricane or Other Tropical Storm,” “What You Need to Know When the Power Goes Out Unexpectedly,” "Floodwater After a Disaster or Emergency," "Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning After an Emergency."

Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Severe Storms: How to Reduce Your Anxiety.”

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