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As Texas Flooding Recedes, Health Hazards Likely to Emerge

  • Carol Pearson

People use an air mattress to float possessions out of a flooded area of Port Arthur, Texas, Aug. 31, 2017. Health officials warn people to avoid floodwaters, which could be contaminated, electrified or hiding sharp objects.

Floodwaters are beginning to recede around Houston, and although Hurricane Harvey has dissipated, the health problems have not. In fact, some are just beginning.

Aerial views of Houston Friday showed that just about everything is under water. It’s what’s in and under that water that has public health workers concerned. More people could die after Harvey’s long gone than during the worst of the storm. Health officials are telling people to stay out of the water if possible, although it’s too late for many.

Downed power lines electrocuted at least two volunteer rescuers when their boat hit the power lines they couldn’t see. And a young man, Andrew Pasek, died after he stepped into electrified water in his family’s yard. Pasek and a friend went back to the family home to search for his sister’s cat. Jodelle Pasek, his mother, said her son’s last words were, “I’m dying,” as he warned the friend not to follow him.

WATCH: As Texas Flooding Recedes, Health Hazards Likely to Emerge

Tens of thousands of residents of Houston, the fourth most populous city in the U.S., fled their homes as the water continued to rise, many at a moment’s notice. Virginia Rogers Grasso, an elderly woman who was taken to the city’s convention center, which is now being used as a shelter, said she didn’t want to leave her home, but authorities told her it was mandatory and that her house “is fixing to be flooded.”

Medicines left behind

People with diabetes didn’t have time to collect lifesaving medications like insulin. Others left without blood pressure or cholesterol controlling drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local hospitals and pharmacies are helping out. Doctors have volunteered to help with routine medical care.

Dr. Mehdi Ravazi, a cardiologist at Texas Heart Institute, told VOA that he went to the convention center to provide basic medical care. Ravazi said he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary at the shelter.

Beyond flooding

But, with lots of water and daytime temperatures in the 30s (90s Fahrenheit), Dr. Samuel Dorevitch says Houston is a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and bacteria. Dorevitch is an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago who specializes in waterborne illnesses.

“The public health concerns following Hurricane Harvey go way beyond the immediate flooding and rainwater,” Dorevitch said. “The concerns extend to mosquitoes and the diseases they carry when standing water is available, especially in containers.”

Dorevitch also said people exposed to floodwater can develop multidrug-resistant staph infections. Photos and video of Texans in the flood zone show hundreds of people walking in water. Any cut could lead to a serious infection. And then there’s E.coli, bacteria that can also be deadly and is very likely in the floodwater.

“If wastewater treatment facilities are overwhelmed, there’s potential for sewage to get into the water,” Dorevitch said. “And then there’s the drinking water that comes out of the tap, which is threatened, as well, by flooding that’s limiting the activity at one of Houston’s drinking water treatment plants right now.”

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement saying it will test floodwater samples as well as drinking water and wastewater facilities. The agency is warning people not to drink or bathe with well water, which is commonly used in Texas. Even in homes, water that has flooded storage areas for pesticide or other products containing hazardous chemicals is not safe to walk in. People who waded through flood waters with open sores or wounds, or who were cut, scraped, or punctured by objects in the water, should ask their doctor if they need a tetanus shot.

Mental health concerns

As the water recedes, mold and respiratory problems caused by mold can increase. Mold can grow in water-soaked walls, insulation, furniture and carpeting, even in ceilings where roofs leaked or were damaged during the storm.

The CDC said its Emergency Operations Center is now activated to bring together CDC staff to respond to public health needs and to send resources and personnel if requested. It has set up medical stations in Louisiana and in Texas. Those in Texas are now operational.

And finally, Dorevitch says, mental health is also a concern. It can be overlooked in the haste to get Houston and other cities running again, but the tragedy of losing everything and those who lost family members or friends can suffer lasting trauma. Much of the video coming from Texas shows people, young and old, weeping for the homes, family photos and the former lives they have lost.

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