The damage inflicted by hurricane Florence is immense and the hazards that homeowners and construction crews may face during cleanup efforts are numerous. It’s important for everyone to be aware of these risks and plan accordingly.
If you are returning home, organizing cleanup efforts or hired to help, here are some of the major threats and the measures you can take to mitigate them. While most homeowners will have intermittent contact with contaminated materials, recovery workers may be in constant contact for eight to 12 hours a day. All workers should have an up-to-date tetanus shot before any cleanup project begins. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults get a tetanus booster every 10 years.
Contaminated Flood Water
Standing water after a flood is often contaminated with sewage that can contain infectious bacteria like E.coli, Salmonella and the hepatitis A virus. It can also harbor toxic chemicals that can cause headaches and skin rashes. Concealed sharp objects can also be a problem. Appropriate personal protective equipment and good hygiene can help keep you safe when working in these conditions. These include:
- Electrically insulated, waterproof boots with a steel shank, toe and insole
- Heavy, waterproof, cut-resistant work gloves
- Goggles or safety glasses with side shields or full-face shields
- Washing hands with soap or disinfected water after participating in cleanup activities and before eating
- Immediately cleaning any wounds or cuts with soap and water followed by antibiotic ointment. If the wound shows any sign of infection, seek medical attention.
Extensive water damage after a hurricane can cause mold to develop on walls, floors, furniture and carpets within 24 hours. Exposure to mold can be especially dangerous for people with asthma and other respiratory issues. It can also cause shortness of breath, flu-like symptoms, skin infections and other health problems. Occupants and cleanup workers are at increased risk for exposure to mold. If you are the homeowner, it’s best to leave mold cleanup to the professionals. Protective measures include:
- Ventilating enclosed areas with fresh air
- Isolating the work area
- Using NIOSH-approved N-95 disposable respirators
- Wearing eye protection
- Wearing gloves
Downed power lines and energized lines and objects are common hazards after a hurricane, creating risk for burns and electrocutions. Even just a puddle of water can conduct electricity. When wet, materials like wood and cloth can also conduct electricity. To reduce risk for burns and electrocution, you should:
- Assume all power lines are live
- Not touch water or any object near downed power lines
- Mark a danger zone around downed power lines
- Stay at least 10 feet away
- Contact the utility company
- Wear an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) rated hard hat if there is danger of electrical hazards or falling debris
Insects and Other Animals
If flood waters, mold and downed power lines aren’t enough to deal with, add wildlife to the mix.
The flood waters are are a haven for mosquitos which means an increased risk for West Nile Virus, Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses in the weeks and months to come. To protect against mosquitoes, workers and residents should:
- Cover as much skin as possible by wearing shirts with long-sleeves, long pants and socks (wear lightweight clothing to reduce risk for heat-induced illnesses)
- Avoid perfumes and colognes when working outdoors
- Use insect repellent containing an EPA-registered active ingredient
Fire ants are aggressive and will bite and sting. To escape flood waters, this invasive species will link together to form a floating ant colony. Fire ants are not deterred by insect repellent. To protect against fire ants, workers involved in cleanup should:
- Wear socks
- If possible, do not disturb a fire ant colony
Hurricanes can displace other wildlife such as snakes and alligators or household pets. Avoid contact with any animals during cleanup efforts. Call your local Animal Control center for assistance.
If you have had storm damage at your home or business, the days are long and hearts are heavy dealing with the destruction. To help manage your stress:
- Stay in touch with people and don’t withdraw. Even if it’s through social media or texting someone, keeping close to you community will help keep you updated and opens the doors of communication.
- Try and get back to your normal routine. When so much has to be done it’s easy to work long days and not eat healthy meals. Do your best to get a good night’s sleep and do your best to eat the right things to give you the energy you need.
- Writing down the events of the day can be therapeutic and is a great way to communicate your feelings—even if it’s only for yourself.
- Limit screen time. Ongoing exposure to the news on various devices can cause more stress and anxiety.
- Breathe. Practicing breathing techniques, listening to music, and exercising are great ways to relieve stress.
- Lend a helping hand. In situations where you feel helpless, reach out and help a neighbor. Even if it’s helping them think through a situation, or taking a meal to someone in need, helping others can be as therapeutic for the giver as it is to the receiver.
For linemen and those working long days surrounded by destruction in communities that may be far from home, it can be extremely stressful. To help manage this stress, workers should be encouraged to:
- Watch out for each other and develop a buddy system
- Eat as healthily as possible
- Avoid using alcohol or drugs to cope
- Whenever possible, take breaks away from the work area
- See what mental health resources are available through their health and welfare fund