The impact of Hurricane Harvey on infrastructure, livelihood, and the lives of people in affected areas is without a doubt tremendous. However, people on the ground in those areas also need to think about how the disaster is impacting public health.
People that evacuated from the floods find their bearings in the George Brown Convention Center in Houston. [Photo by Erich Schlegel, Getty Images]
Flooding can cause a lot of damage. It can destroy homes and buildings, it can carry people and animals off to their demise, and it can make evacuating to safer areas difficult and dangerous. One thing that we have to consider as well, however, is that floods can also carry nasty things like diseases and infections. This can lead to the spread of disease, which can be quicker when people are in living in close quarters, like in refugee centers, and in less than sanitary conditions.
We also have to consider the fact that floods like these can occur more frequently, and in many other places in the world.
Volunteer groups help people evacuate to safety through flood waters [Photo by Scott Olson, Getty Images]
While photos of rescue groups helping people stranded by the flooding are certainly heartwarming, they unfortunately don't tell the whole story. When you wade through flood waters, you risk contamination and infection. Flood waters from raw sewage, septic tanks, landfills, portable toilets, cemeteries, medical wastes, and other similar sources are all mixing together. These are all possible sources of bacteria. Contaminated flood waters can cause diseases, diarrhea, and can also infect wounds. Hurricane Harvey won't be the last storm to cause massive flooding, so it's important for people around the world to know the risks of wading into flood waters.
However, the trouble isn't over yet even when the flood waters dry up. Mold and mildew will still be around, and these can affect our respiratory systems even way after the flood waters are gone. Mosquitoes can also thrive in floods, increasing the risks of mosquito-borne diseases like dengue, malaria, and zika.
It's also important to note that the lack of safe drinking water is the more common cause of diarrhea. In the case of Houston, for example, the floods have already put a strain on the city's drinking water system due to overflowing water reservoirs.
Storms and floods can do quite a number on buildings and infrastructure. [Photo by Kevin Vandivier, Genesis Photos]
Diseases and infections aren't the only things to fear in floods. Experiencing a flood, especially a huge one, can be traumatic in many ways. For one thing, injury from blunt force trauma is a possibility. For example, flood waters can carry off unsecured fuel tanks, which can cause injury. This can also sever the supply line to the house or building and cause the fuel inside the tank to spill out.
Floods can also damage important infrastructure, such as roads and bridges. For example, erosion from flood damage caused a New York State Thruway bridge to collapse, killing 10 people.
While the floods caused by Hurricane Harvey are historic and unprecedented, there is always the possibility that similar floods can take place anywhere. There are also other factors that can make the impact of natural disasters like floods worse, such as lax governance. Hopefully, governments around the world can look upon the disaster in Houston and glean lessons to help them prepare for natural disasters in their own jurisdictions.
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