Floodwater dangers: Get the word out now

Floods pose serious health risks, such as diseases and other hidden perils. Communicators can play a vital role in keeping people healthy and safe.


Drowning isn’t the only risk people face when floodwaters rise, just the most obvious.

Other health risks lurk beneath the surface.

Massive floods in the wake of hurricanes like Katrina, Harvey, Irma and Florence demand aggressive rescue efforts, but they also call for education on the many dangers floodwaters pose to people trying to stay safe.

Hospitals and health care communicators can take important steps to help protect the public.

Drowning, of course, is the most obvious risk. As The Washington Post reports:

The majority of people who die during floods drown: About 75 percent of the fatalities are drownings, per the World Health Organization. Two feet of rapid floodwater will sweep away an SUV. Just six inches of water, if it moves quickly enough, can knock over an adult, according to the National Weather Service.

The Accuweather website notes that flooding victims face long-term health risks from more than the water alone:

The risk of the spread of infectious diseases is further increased by the rise in mosquito populations. While mosquito populations were initially wiped out during the storm, populations will surge following the flood. The remaining floodwater will serve as an optimal breeding ground for mosquitoes.

A year after Hurricane Katrina in 2006, a study found that the number of cases of West Nile infection increased by two-fold in affected areas. The study suggested that exposure was widely the cause of the increase, as evacuees often spent days outside waiting for rescue.

Sewage, chemicals and waterborne germs are one problem, but so is the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning from generators in shelters, as well as general hygiene in shelters. In addition, as ABC News points out:

Floodwater can be dangerous for people with open wounds, particularly if they have other health conditions. After Hurricane Katrina, five people with infected wounds died and health officials believe that exposure to brackish floodwater contributed to the deaths.

Animals of all kinds also pose a threat. The Guardian website reports that waters have carried clumps of fire ants to local doors. Fire ants can link together and use their ability to store oxygen in their bodies to float, sometimes in an “island” of up to 8,000 ants.

Flooded homes can become havens for such dangerous snakes as water moccasins.

In addition, The Guardian notes :

Water-borne and person-to-person infections can also easily spread after a disaster. Overwhelmed sewer systems bring people into contact with disease-spreading bacteria. Stomach illnesses are common following floods, public health officials said.

The water itself isn’t the only hazard. The CNN website notes that floodwater is “often contaminated with sewage and chemicals and can hide sharp objects made of metal or glass.”

Floodwater can also carry disease, although the risk of typhoid or cholera in the U.S. is lower than in less-developed countries. Still, CNN warns, other diseases pose a risk:

What may be more common will be bouts of diarrhea or other stomach problems if people come into contact with contaminated water or consume food or drink that has. Using items that have been submerged can also cause stomach problems. To cut down on infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reminds parents not to let children play with toys that have been in the water unless then have since been thoroughly washed.

Although citizens may not be able to avoid contact with floodwater, they can take some precautions, the Time magazine website advises:

Anyone who is exposed to flood water should frequently wash their hands, inform doctors of any wounds, and make sure kids do not play in flood water or with toys that have been in flood water. Being up to date on their vaccinations is also an important way to lower the risk of getting sick during or after a flood.

Sharing this important information before, during and especially after flooding can help people stay healthy and safe. How is your staff handling such community outreach efforts during this volatile hurricane season?

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