As agencies continue with their ongoing recovery and relief efforts for Eastern Kentuckians who were impacted by July’s unprecedented floods, public health officials are trying to spread awareness about the potential health concerns a flooding event such as this may bring.
Pike County Health Department Public Health Director Tammy Riley said there are a multitude of concerns from a public health perspective when dealing with a flooding event.
“There’s a variety of public health concerns around a crisis such as a flood,” Riley said. “There are some serious potential health outcomes as a result of this flood that could impact our county and our region.”
Riley said there are three stages to a flooding event. Preservation of life is the first stage, the second stage is cleanup and recovery and the third stage is long-term recovery. According to Riley, there are both physical and mental issues related to all three stages.
During the disaster
During the initial stage of a flooding event, as the water is rising, Riley said the priority is to seek higher ground and call for help. She said always remember “turn around, don’t drown,” when faced with flood waters.
Not only could you potentially be swept away, but Riley said flood waters contain a multitude of health risks.
First, there is a possibility of sustaining bites from animals in flood waters.
Second, flood waters are often carrying debris and other sharp objects that could cause minor or major injuries. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infections from such injuries are a main concern during and immediately after a flooding event.
Electrical hazards are also a major concern with flood waters, Riley said.
Additionally, flood waters could be full of sewage, fecal matter and other infections materials, said Riley.
Chemicals are also often found in flood waters.
“Flood water comes through homes and properties and sweeps everything along with it,” Riley said. “So there’s a lot of chemical contamination, as well.”
Immediately after the flood
The second stage of a flooding event brings with it even more health concerns.
Riley said mosquito and rodent issues could be of concern not only for those who have been directly impacted by the flood, but also to those who live in the surrounding areas and were not directly impacted.
Gastrointestinal (GI) illnesses are another concern during the cleanup and recovery stage, Riley said. GI issues can be brought on from ingesting flood water, unknowingly accessing contaminated water, or being unaware of potential boil water advisories.
Riley said similar to mosquito and rodent issues, boil water advisories could also affect those who were not directly impacted by the flood.
Skin issues due to exposure to flood waters could also arise during this phase, according to Riley, including rashes and other wounds.
Tetanus is another concern after flooding, however, Riley said there is a lower level of concern for this than perhaps the public may perceive.
Returning home during the clean-up stage can have potential health hazards, as well, Riley said.
When returning home, Riley stressed it is important to never enter a home with standing water in it. It is better to seek an agency that will assist in clearing out the home, she said.
Once it is safe to return to the home, Riley said there are several steps you can take to continue to reduce the risk of health hazards.
She said to always throw away any food that was potentially contaminated by flood water. She also recommended to throw away any type of porous material, such as a cutting board, that can not be properly disinfected. Riley said it is important to ensure you are using safe drinking water from a reliable source and always check for boil water advisories.
There is also a major risk for mold upon returning home, Riley said.
She stressed the importance of disinfecting everything with bleach and allowing it to dry thoroughly before continuing with rebuilding.
When cleaning the home, Riley said to remove any insulation that was potentially exposed to flood water because there is a risk of it growing mold on adjacent materials if left behind.
Another major health hazard when returning home is the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Riley said people often use generators or grills once they’ve returned home after a flooding event.
It is imperative, Riley said, to never use a generator or grill inside a home, garage or any other building of that nature. When using a generator or grill, it is best to ensure they are at least 20 feet away from an open door or window.
Long-term problems anticipated
Riley said the third stage of a flooding event could bring numerous health issues along with it.
Although malnutrition has not been an issue for Eastern Kentucky in the short-term initial stages thanks to the ample agencies that provided meals to the victims, Riley said that it could become an issue in the long-term final stage of recovery.
“When individuals lose their homes and their vehicles, potentially their ability to carry out their occupation, that’s a loss of income,” said Riley. “With a loss of income, we know there is a long-term impact on health.”
There are also residents who relied on a garden for food and lost it to the flood, Riley said, which is another cause for concern about food supply in the long-term.
There are also major long-term concerns for those impacted who might be choosing food or housing over necessary medications due to additional cost from displacement, Riley said.
Riley emphasized that stress and mental health are major concerns during the long-term recovery phase.
“Really that’s one of the most primary concerns for public health at the current time,” she said. “And it’s something multiple agencies in the area are working on.”
According to Riley, the Pike County Health Dept. offers a variety of services residents can turn to that will help with the long-term recovery efforts.
They offer the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program which provides specific food groups to women, infants and children under five.
They also offer the HANDS program which conducts home visits and provides a number of services to families with children aged two and under.
Riley said the HANDS program is currently working to provide additional services to those who were impacted by the floods.
The Health Dept. also offers clinical services. They provide a variety of vaccines, including the tetanus vaccine.
Additionally, the Health Dept. offers the Harm Reduction Program, which Riley said is currently trying to be proactive in helping an at risk community by distributing Narcan and working with Mountain Comprehensive Care Center to provide mental health resources.
Finally, Riley said the Health Dept. is providing environmental services, such as well water kits, which will ensure safe drinking water for those who get their water from a well.
Moving forward, the road to recovery will be as difficult as it is long.
“It’s going to be a long road to recovery,” Riley said. “It isn’t going to be something that happens overnight.”
The best thing we can do moving forward is to come together as a community and take advantage of all the available resources, Riley said.
“There are a wealth of resources that are being brought to our area,” said Riley. “I don’t think there is any one organization that is the silver bullet answer for us, but I think educating yourself about the variety of resources that are available and taking advantage of every single one for which you qualify is the best thing we can do moving forward.”
Riley recommends those impacted by the flood to visit the Disaster Recovery Center (DRC), located at the Dorton Community Center, where there are many resources available in a one-stop-shop environment.
She also highly recommends anyone who lives in the area to familiarize themselves with the CDC website on flooding and disasters, where a wealth of information is available. To check out the CDC website, visit, www.CDC.gov/disasters/floods.