Hurricane Ian Impact: The Unexpected Health Effects

People survey damage from Hurricane Ian.Share on Pinterest
GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images
  • Hurricane Ian hit Florida this week, reaching Category 4 status.
  • Aside from structural damage, the aftermath can bring about multiple health concerns.
  • Physical well-being can be impacted by infections, pollutants, and unsafe buildings.
  • Stress and anxiety may lead to mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

No stranger to storms, Florida doesn’t always live up to its Sunshine State moniker. This week, the region faced one of its biggest natural disasters in decades: Hurricane Ian.

Before hitting Florida, the Category 3 hurricane caused wide-scale destruction in Cuba. As the storm headed towards the U.S., it picked up pace and was upgraded to a Category 4 classification within days.

This is the second-highest level possible — whereby winds up to 156 mph or more cause ‘catastrophic damage’, according to the Saffir-Simpson wind scale.

After a Category 4 hurricane the scale states that, ‘most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.’

Experts warn significant and varying health concerns will also arise in the wake of a hurricane’s devastation.

Infectious and vector-borne diseases

After a major storm when water and electricity aren’t available, health experts can be concerned about the rise of infectious diseases.

But experts say it’s not likely that uncommon diseases will pop up in an area even after a hurricane.

“There is a common misperception that waves of new infectious disease hit the population after the flood waters recede,” Brian Labus, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas School of Public Health, explained to Healthline.

“The reality is a lot less interesting,” he continued, “as people get infected with the same diseases after a disaster that they did before.”

So, for example, cholera won’t be a concern if it wasn’t an issue in the area previously.

However, there are other diseases to be aware of.

“Flooding can result in an increase in mosquito populations by providing more standing water in which they can breed,” revealed Labus. “This could cause an increase in the diseases normally found in the area, such as West Nile virus.”

Those forced to seek refuge in emergency shelters can also find themselves at higher risk of infectious diseases.

“When we bring a lot of people into a small area, things like common colds and diarrheal illnesses can spread more easily,” Labus said.

And let’s not forget COVID-19. “The Omicron virus can spread very easily among crowds,” Jun Wu, PhD, professor of environmental and occupational health in University of California, Irvine’s Department of Public Health, told Healthline.

“If someone is displaced in a crowded shelter, try to wear a mask to protect yourself and others,” Wu recommended.

Keep a distance if you can, and, when possible, wash your hands before eating.

Water contamination

As Hurricane Ian hit Florida, authorities implemented a boil water advisory in some areas.

Contamination may occur “from flooding of wastewater treatment facilities or sewage overflow, street run-offs and agricultural run-offs, and so on,” explained Wu — leading to a spread of pathogens, viruses, and bacteria.

In addition, shared Wu, contaminated water may contain toxic chemicals.

“The spills from industrial facilities, as well as potential leakages from gas tanks and agricultural run-offs, can lead to increased concentrations of chemicals, industrial solvents, metals such as lead and arsenic, and pesticides, all in the stormwater.”

Avoid drinking or using tap water until your water provider gives the all-clear. Instead, use bottled water where possible. If you have to use tap water, “water filters will be very helpful for temporary use,” noted Wu.

It’s also vital to refrain from walking through flood waters. You can’t see what’s lurking under the surface, and “cuts or scrapes could become infected after being in contact with contaminated water,” Labus shared.

Breathing issues

As flood water recedes, mold is left to flourish in damp conditions — the spores and toxins from which can lead to chronic health issues.

“The average individual takes 20,000 breaths per day and spends about 90% of their time indoors,” Michael Rubino, a mold and air quality expert, author of The Mold Medic – an Expert’s Guide on Mold Removal, and founder of HomeCleanse, shared with Healthline.

“The [spores are] so small that they’re able to be inhaled, ingested, and absorbed into the body,” revealed Rubino. “Some particles are tiny enough that they blow right past the lungs and straight into the bloodstream.”

Inhalation of mold spores can affect people differently, Rubino continued. “One person may experience the occasional runny nose and headache, while another [could] develop 15 symptoms and an autoimmune condition.”

Mold can start growing in 24-48 hours, Rubino explained, and appear anywhere — although “hotspot areas include basements, crawl spaces, attic, windows, and doors.”

Any mold in a small space can be tackled yourself. Aside from wearing protective clothing, said Rubino, the clean-up process usually requires a HEPA vacuum cleaner, botanical cleaning products, and microfiber towels.

Larger or stubborn areas of mold will require professional removal.

Chemical pollutants

It’s also crucial to be aware of other air pollutants, noted Wu. For instance, during electrical outages, people rely on gas and diesel for power — which can be problematic.

“If generators aren’t used properly, the combustion of gas and diesel will generate carbon monoxide,” Wu revealed. Carbon monoxide build-up, she added, “will cause symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Very high levels may lead to fatality.”

Engaging in the clean-up process can also expose you to other forms of pollution that can become airborne

“Those involved in debris removal and structural repair may have increased fine particulate matter exposure and potentially other chemicals,” shared Wu.

Mental health concerns

It’s not only physical health at risk in the aftermath of a hurricane: our mental well-being can take a hit, too.

“A hurricane is a traumatic event, and trying to return to ‘normal’ afterwards is very difficult,” Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York and Connecticut, told Healthline.

Anxiety and depression are often seen as hurricanes create “a lot of unknowns,” explained E. Alison Holman, PhD, professor of psychological science at the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing, UC Irvine. “Any time there are those kinds of unknowns, it generates anxiety.”

Another common concern is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A recent study found 30% of people who had experienced natural disaster-related flooding developed PTSD.

“Common PTSD symptoms include hypervigilance, flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance of reminders of the trauma, and cognitive distortions about the world and the future,” Stephanie Freitag, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York, explained to Healthline.

As with physical health, some people are more affected than others.

“It depends on how bad the devastation is and how personally impacted the individual is,” said Freitag.

“The effects are [also] going to depend a lot on a person’s prior life experiences,” added Holman. “A lot of experiences of trauma can lead a person to have a stronger response to subsequent traumas.”

She continued: “We found in our research that there is a sensitization effect, such that prior exposure to a single or several events can sensitize people to the next event that happens.”

Schiff explains that stress also makes those with previous substance abuse disorders more vulnerable. “[They] may increase their consumption or relapse if they are in recovery as an unhealthy coping behavior after a hurricane.”

Supporting your mental wellbeing

To promote good mental health in the face of a natural disaster, the experts suggest to:

  • Seek support. This could be from “mental health professionals, physicians, family, friends, and [the wider] community,” stated Freitag.
  • Be kind. “Recognize this is not easy to go through and try not to blame or be hard on yourself,” noted Holman.
  • Journal. “Writing down thoughts and feelings helps you understand them more clearly, as well as process anything troubling you,” said Schiff.
  • Go bitesize. “Focus on next steps, and give yourself a small goal that you can accomplish,” Holman suggested. This could be as simple as sorting your next meal.
  • Prioritize wellness. “Do things that bring you joy, such as hobbies and relaxation,” Freitag recommended.
  • Recognize what you can control. While we can’t change the hurricane and its effects, “we can control our feelings, how we respond to those, and what we choose to do,” Schiff explained.

Home hazards

Usually, our homes are a sanctuary from the outside world. But after a hurricane has rolled in, the place we once felt safest can pose a host of dangers.

If you’ve evacuated, you’ll want to get into your house ASAP and assess the damage.

However, “do not enter a damaged building until a professional has inspected the electrical system, gas lines, and plumbing,” explained Darren Hudema, director of training and technical services at PuroClean, to Healthline.

In the case of electricity and gas, faulty wires and leaking pipes can lead to accidental electrocution, fume inhalation, and burns.

Once the property is given the all-clear, Hudema stated you should “protect yourself from getting shocked by avoiding touching any wet electrical equipment, especially if you’re standing in water.”

Wearing protective safety gear such as “gloves, safety glasses, rubber boots, and masks” when checking your home is another approach to help keep you safe, said Hudema.

We’ve covered drinking water, but food can also pose a concern. Food that’s been exposed to flood water (even if it’s in packaging) or hasn’t been kept at the correct temperature should be disposed of, recommended Hudema.

The bottom line

Hurricanes can severely impact our physical and mental health and potentially lead to issues such as depression, infectious diseases, and electrocution.

In addition to encouraging new illnesses, hurricane devastation impacts those with existing concerns. “Acute injuries and chronic health problems are no longer under control,” explained Labus. For instance, hospitals are affected and “people can lose or run out of their medications.”

If you’ve been affected by Hurricane Ian, disaster relief aid resources are available. From food banks to insurance claims, information can be found on the Florida Education Association website.

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