Post-Disaster Health and Safety

December 27, 2018  
Public safety workers wading through floodwaters to rescue citizens.

The resilience of states’ coastal cities was tested in 2018 as Americans endured forest fires, hurricanes, flooding and other dangerous natural disasters. When these storms hit, safety is the first priority, but long term health can also be at risk in the weeks and months following a disaster.

Among the most destructive recent disasters were hurricane Michael and hurricane Florence, which brought record high winds and high levels of flooding along the east coast. After touching down in Florida, Hurricane Michael was noted as the strongest storm to hit the U.S. in 49 years. These deadly storms rip through boats, homes and buildings leaving a trail of debris and devastation for those who will later return to their homes.
When these storms hit safety is the first priority, but long term health can also be at risk in the weeks and months following a disaster when civilians return to their homes. As volunteers and relief workers start to clean up affected communities, they could be exposed to toxic materials or unsafe environments. Knowing the high risk scenarios will help those assisting in clean-up projects and homeowners alike to restore their communities safely. 
Electrical Risks
Any time that electrical outlets, circuits, or machinery becomes damaged with water, there is a threat of electrocution. Before attempting to clean up water-damaged equipment, workers and volunteers should make sure they turn off the main power breaker or power source. Never stand in water when handling these power sources, and contact a professional electrician if there is standing water between you and a fusebox. Storms can also knock over and damage power lines, and in these instances no one except the fire department or professional line workers should attempt to handle live wires. Before electricity is turned back on, it should be inspected by a qualified electrician.
During a storm, residents can lose power and often use generators while they wait for electricity to be restored. For those using generators, it’s important to have the proper automatic-interrupt devices to plug in your generator. Using the wrong equipment can be a fire hazard if the generator is active when the power comes back on. Generators should also be kept outside of a home or structure to avoid a buildup of poisonous carbon-monoxide.
Exposure to Toxic Materials
When a strong storm comes through a city or town, wind and flood waters can quickly dismantle buildings, tear off roofs, and scatter debris. These forces can reveal unsafe materials that relief workers may not be aware of. One of these toxins is asbestos, which has been used in the building of homes and other buildings, and can become dangerous when broken into dust. Before people knew that asbestos was toxic, it was used abundantly in construction due to its properties of strength, insulation, and flame retardance and it still exists in many homes today. When these older homes and structures are damaged, asbestos can become airborne.
When volunteers and relief workers are picking up debris and mending broken homes, it’s important to wear the appropriate respiratory masks and equipment to ensure that toxins aren’t being inhaled. Asbestos becomes dangerous to humans when they breathe in the microscopic fibers. These fibers become embedded in the lining of certain organs, leading to asbestosis and cancer. To avoid asbestos related cancers like mesothelioma, it’s imperative that workers wash at the end of the day and don’t bring equipment or clothing home that could have toxic fibers on them.
Hygiene and Disease Prevention
Along with wearing the appropriate protective equipment while on the job, volunteers and relief workers should also use tools to inspect and pick up material, rather than using their hands to avoid being cut by sharp objects. Staying up to date on tetanus shots and other vaccines can also help to limit disease or infection. The CDC recommends that anyone working on natural disaster relief should be immunized for Tetanus and Hepatitis B.
Flood water can contain a number of contaminants including chemical waste, sewage waste, pointed physical objects and potentially electronic equipment. Standing flood water can be a home for bacteria, and disaster relief professionals should not enter water if they have open wounds or don’t have the proper equipment. Keeping skin and wounds clean is important for both workers and those returning to their homes, and anyone with an open wound should immediately wash it with soap and water. If the wound appears infected or a rash develops, a medical professional should be contacted.
Having organizations and community groups ready to step in during the aftermath of a natural disaster is very influential and meaningful for the recovery process. When relief workers are educated on health and safety procedures, their short and long term health is taken into consideration and protected. As a result, affected communities are better equipped to work together and overcome these disasters.

-This information has been provided by the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center.