Besides the immediate dangers of flooding, Harvey has had a host of short-term effects on health, and will continue to have longer-term effects going forward. Given the storms and hurricanes that have arrived since Harvey, these after-effects may be relevant to areas impacted by Irma and, now, Maria as well.
Short-Term Consequences: Compromised Water Quality, Access to Medical Care, and More
Short-term effects from Harvey on the Houston area include the presence of harmful bacteria in floodwater, contamination of clean drinking water, the flooding of toxic waste sites, and the compromised access to health services.
According to the EPA, 166 water systems in affected areas were issues boil-water notices, and 50 were shut down. The contents of floodwaters also pose a threat to health. Trash and sharp objects float under the water unseen, and sewers and septic systems overflow, pouring human waste into the floodwater mix. Public health officials are looking to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to help predict possible microbial dangers in Harvey floodwaters. According to the Washington Post, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 30 cases of MRSA in 2005 among New Orleans evacuees who had been sent to Dallas. MRSA, or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is potentially life-threatening bacteria that causes the destruction of human tissues. Furthermore, in the days following Hurricane Harvey, microbiologists detected high levels of coliform and E. coli in the floodwaters around Houston. Coliform, bacteria found in the feces of humans and warm-blooded animals, should be undetectable in safe drinking water. Neither coliform nor E. coli are life threatening, but exposure to either can lead to infection, intestinal disruption, and other medical conditions.
Residents in Southeast Texas also dealt with interrupted access to medical care in the days following Harvey. Several hospitals and nursing homes were evacuated due to flooding, and many hospitals that remained open had to turn to backup generators for electricity. The disruption in healthcare services impacted both routine appointments and more intense treatment programs for cancer and other diseases. Many people who were forced to flee flood zones struggled to obtain their medications, particularly those to treat diabetes, hypertension, and asthma.
Over 13 toxic waste sites were flooded or damaged in hurricane Harvey. All of the affected sites contain industrial waste, acid compounds, and pesticides. Fires broke out at one flooded chemical plant outside of Houston. According to the EPA, Texas officials have been allowing chemical containers that catch fire to burn out rather than endanger firefighters. In eastern Houston, after a ruptured pipeline and resulting chemical spill, residents trapped in surrounding flooded areas reported an “unbearable” smell, and complained of headaches, sore throats, and itchy eyes.
Further, without power, residents were without air conditioning and electric fans to alleviate the high temperatures characteristic of August in the Houston area. This high heat can put those with existing health conditions at an increased risk of physical stress and complications.
While a lot of the short-term effects from Harvey are in the past, communities will continue to deal with a host of long-term health consequences in the months and years ahead. Public health experts worry that once floodwaters recede, stagnant water that is left behind may become a "breeding ground" for mosquitos that could carry West Nile Virus.
Mold can also be a factor that impacts health once flooding has gone away. After spending weeks away at shelters, many evacuees will return to find their homes rampant with mold. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, investigators from the CDC found mold in the wall of half of 112 water-damages homes. According to the CDC, routine mold exposure can lead to allergic reactions and a worsening of existing health problems. In extreme cases, post-hurricane mold has even been implicated in several deaths.
How to Help
Besides the host of negative consequences from Harvey, the hurricane aftermath has brought together those affected and those not affected alike, and fostered a sense of community. Part of this sense of unity takes the form of aid packages and donations to help the affected communities. Click here to learn more about how to contribute to relief efforts for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Hose.