Coping with a natural disaster can be a highly stressful situation. With your stress level at its peak, it affects your immune system and makes you more vulnerable to catching diseases.
But even with your immune system in tip-top shape, natural disasters like storms and hurricanes bring invisible danger: illnesses. Diseases like norovirus, giardiasis and cholera are just some of the superbugs you’ll have to defend yourself against, and, in cases like these, it’s better to be proactive than reactive.
Here are some things you can do to prevent yourself from catching these diseases.
1. Stock Up on Water (and store it properly)
Hurricanes can contaminate water systems or shut them down altogether. In such cases, if you’re unprepared, the risk of drinking contaminated water rises.Before this happens, store enough water that’s safe for drinking and personal hygiene while you can.
Store at least a gallon of water for each person and each pet per day— For example, a family of four with one dog would need five gallons of potable water per day. If they plan to have enough water for a week, they would store 35 gallons. You should store more if you’re living in a place where the climate is hot, or if a person with you is sick or pregnant.
2. Treat Your Water Right
If you’re caught unprepared and must use water from your well before or after a hurricane, it’s best to treat it first before using it. Water from public systems should be fine to store in clean sealed containers without additional treatment. Hurricanes can make it easier for water contamination to happen, especially when flooding is present, bringing with it a bucketful of diseases like norovirus, cholera and more.
Water taken from public systems or wells after flooding occurs should always be purified before drinking or using for personal hygiene. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have some great advice for making water safe to drink.
There are different products and methods that you can use to purify water and make it safe to use. These include:
One of the most basic methods of purifying water, boiling kills parasites, bacteria and viruses. You only need to bring your water into a rolling boil for a minute to make sure you eliminate the threat from pathogens present in the water.
You can also use water purification tablets to make your water safe to drink. They’re inexpensive, simple to use and safe if you follow instructions closely.
- Ultraviolet (UV)
A UV Pen is also an effective tool for eliminating pathogens that may be present in the water. Simply follow the manufacturer’s instructions to treat the water and make it safe for consumption.
While treating water can remove pathogens, keep in mind that the methods mentioned above will not be able to take out heavy metals and chemicals. You will have to filter the water first to remove debris and make it as clear as possible to make treatment more effective, especially in the case of UV treatment.
3. Keep Bleach Handy
Much like using iodine to purify water, bleach is another product that you can use to chemically treat water. Add eight drops of plain unscented bleach that contains 5.25% sodium hypochlorite for every gallon of water, stir, then let stand for 30 minutes.Aside from purifying your water, household bleach also has other uses that can make it handy during a disaster, such as disinfecting food (fruits and vegetables) and for sterilizing items that may have been contaminated by floodwater.
4. Use Dry Ice in Place of Refrigeration
The power supply can get interrupted during and after a hurricane, which means food in your refrigerator may become spoiled and vulnerable to contamination. Before a hurricane, freeze containers of water—this will help keep your freezer cold enough for hours after the power goes out, and will provide you with an additional supply of safe water when it melts.Dry ice can keep your refrigerator cold enough to safely store your food and keep it from spoiling. Fifty pounds of dry ice will keep an 18-cubic foot freezer that’s fully stocked cold for two days.
5. Always Wash Your Utensils… and Your Hands!
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after handling food items, before eating and after administering first aid, treating ill persons and using the toilet.Wash your utensils (pots, pans, plates, etc.) thoroughly before and after using them.
If they have been in contact with floodwater, this is another opportunity for you to use household bleach mixed with water to disinfect them. Also keep the surface area clean when preparing food. Countertops, cutting boards, plates and the dinner table can be contaminated with a stray drop of outside water, so always wipe them clean before and after each meal.
6. Keep Out of the Water and Wear Protective Clothing
Do not wade or swim in flood water, especially if you have an open wound. Diseases such as leptospirosis, botulism and hepatitis-A can be found in contaminated flood water and will easily infect humans. Even if you don’t have a wound, broken trees and other debris from the storm can easily cut through your skin and create an open gateway for bacteria, viruses and parasites to enter.
If you must go through flood water, wear watertight boots. Boots with electrical insulation are better, since they provide protection against downed powerlines that may be submerged in the water. Boots should also be very durable to protect your feet from sharp hazards unseen in the murky water.
Goggles or safety glasses that will protect your eyes from splashes are also helpful. In addition, wear a face mask to protect yourself from airborne diseases common during hurricane season such as pertussis, TB or chickenpox. This is highly recommended, especially if you’re going to be in an evacuation center. Finally, hard shell head protection in the form of a motorcycle or cycling helmet is recommended if the storm hasn’t abated, to protect against flying or falling debris.
7. Make Sure Your Shots are Up-To-Date
Many of the common infectious diseases that strike during and after hurricanes can be easily avoided by making sure you’re vaccinated for them. To make sure you’re vaccinated, consult your immunization records and keep copies of these records with you in case you need to evacuate from your home.
8. Drain Stagnant Water
Stagnant water can be a breeding ground for mosquitos—one of the main vectors of deadly diseases like West Nile virus (WNV), eastern equine encephalitis (EEE or Triple E) and the Zika virus. Although much rarer in the U.S., deaths from mosquito bites are still documented every year, especially during the summer months, through hurricane season and until the first frost.
Mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water. After a hurricane or a storm, water can collect in places like old tires, trash cans, or even discarded tin cans. These items should be covered or permanently discarded to prevent mosquitoes from laying their eggs in them.
Items in and around the house with standing water like flower vases, planter saucers and buckets should be regularly emptied and cleaned to minimize the risk of hatching new mosquitoes around your home.
9. Disinfect your Home
After a hurricane or a flood, the moisture in your house can result in mold, causing respiratory infections and allergy problems for you and everyone else in your residence.As soon as you can, dry the place by using dehumidifiers or opening the doors and windows to let the air circulate.
If you must (and you have electricity to make it possible), you can use fans to help speed up the process. Wet rugs, carpets and upholstery may have to be taken out to dry and thoroughly cleaned, but if this isn’t possible, you will have to discard them. Leaky roofs and ceilings need to be patched to make sure the house is moisture-free.
Disinfect affected parts of your home with bleach (1 cup of bleach for every gallon of water) or soap solution. If a large area of your house is infested with mold, consult the guide on mold removal released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
With natural calamities, immediate dangers like storm severity and downed infrastructure aren’t the only concerns. Waterborne diseases are just as dangerous, and can persist even after the hurricane has passed. When it comes to health hazards, knowledge and preparation go a long way in combating these invisible threats.