Which is worse, the hurricane itself or the aftermath? From a medical standpoint, your doctors at The Medical Group of South Florida, believe it’s the latter.
Once the storm has passed begins the monumental task cleaning up afterward. We understand the impulse to dive right in and start to work, but there are certain precautions you should observe first.
Our colleagues at MD 2.0 Jupiter published a comprehensive blog post on August 31 touching on all medical aspects of hurricane preparation and its aftermath, but we’d like to expand on the health hazards connected with the cleanup phase.
First of all, if you’ve been diagnosed with a heart condition, or even if you’re not in the best condition physically, take clean up activities slowly. As with our northern neighbors who are out of shape and try to shovel snow, sudden strenuous physical activity can be dangerous. If you must engage in arduous exertion, warm up first with stretching exercises, take frequent breaks, and be sure to stay hydrated. Water dilutes the blood, making it less likely to form clots.
Sufficient hydration, in fact, applies to everyone. It’s hot here in southern Florida, and power will likely be out for some time, so you won’t be able to escape to air conditioning. Again, take frequent breaks in the shade, drink water frequently even when you’re not thirsty, and watch for signs of heat exhaustion: heavy sweating, weakness, cold or pale clammy skin, a fast or weak pulse, nausea or vomiting, fainting. Symptoms of heat stroke include a high body temperature, hot, red, dry, or moist skin, a rapid and strong pulse, and—eventually—unconsciousness.
Flood waters are another concern. There may be considerable standing water after the storm passes, containing numerous hidden hazards.
Aside from the oil, gas, and chemicals that have been washed into these waters, they will be loaded with fecal matter from agricultural runoff, as well as human and animal waste, not to mention deceased animals. Protect yourself from the water as much as possible with boots and hip-waders if you can obtain them. If you can’t, be sure to thoroughly wash any exposed areas as soon as possible after contact. Flood waters can contain such pathogens as fungi, viruses, and bacteria, specifically hepatitis, cholera, and typhoid, among other serious illnesses.
Another danger that may be hidden beneath standing water is physical: either sharp objects or holes, such as missing manhole covers, root holes where trees used to be, or small sinkholes. Always wear shoes, and try to avoid walking in murky water.
Then there are the hazards lurking in your home. Generators too near the house can produce deadly carbon dioxide inside. And never try to use a grill inside the home or other enclosed space.
If floodwaters entered your home, they have brought along the contamination mentioned above. Drapes, furniture, wallpaper, and carpeting—anything porous—will be contaminated and should be discarded. When in doubt, take it out. Be sure to wear gloves and a breathing mask when performing these tasks. And take care with the debris itself, which will be filled with sharp and broken objects.
Mold will also be an issue throughout the home. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that mold can begin to grow in as little as one or two days, so all surfaces touched by flood waters should be scrubbed thoroughly with bleach. Use one teaspoon of bleach to a gallon of water, and never mix bleach with ammonia or any other cleaner.
Outside the home, take care with chain saws. When cutting “spring poles”—that is, trees or branches that have become twisted or bent with the swirling winds and are waiting to be suddenly released—the CDC recommends you identify the maximum point of tension on the spring pole and slowly shave the underside of the tree to allow the tension to release slowly. Also, always cut at waist level or below to maintain control over the chain saw.
Finally, take it easy. You, your friends, and your community will have suffered multiple, tremendous, often irreplaceable losses. Realize that stress is a health hazard in itself. Don’t push yourself during the cleanup beyond what you feel comfortable doing. Take breaks, breathe, sleep as much as possible. If you feel overwhelmed, talk to us about steps you can take to help relieve the pressure during recovery.