After Matthew: The Hidden Dangers of Hurricanes

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Fallen trees and damaged electrical power lines blocking a road; hazards after a natural disaster wind storm

The thrashing winds have died down. Relentless rain has ceased. The clouds have cleared and the sun is shining. But this is no time to let your guard down.

Last week, Hurricane Matthew pounded its way through the Caribbean before bearing down on the eastern U.S. coastline from Florida to North Carolina. Many lives and homes were tragically lost. But not all of the death and destruction happens during the storm itself. The aftermath is a treacherous time, with still-rising floodwaters, power outages, breaks in healthcare services, and increased risks for injury or illness. The mental and physical toll of a hurricane continues to mount even as it dispels and fades off into the ocean. We must remember that, although the storm has passed, danger remains present.

Beware of rising waters

After the rain ends, it can take days for rising rivers and streams to crest, or reach their highest point. This means that homes and roads that are not underwater at the end of the storm may be flooded in the days following.

In North Carolina, Matthew dumped 6 to 18 inches of rain, causing flooding that rivaled or surpassed that of Hurricane Floyd in 1999. But much of the water damage didn’t happen right away. Even as rescue and recovery efforts began, the state’s rivers continued to swell and overflow their banks, creating a second wave of destruction.

Driving on water-covered roads or through flooded areas can leave you hurt or stranded – or worse. Help may not be able to reach you right away if you get stuck, and you won’t be able to see hazards like debris or sinkholes in your path. Avoid driving through flooded areas, especially when the water is fast moving. As little as six inches of water can cause you to lose control of your vehicle.

Avoid risks during power outagesAre you prepared? infographic

Hurricane Matthew knocked out power to millions of homes and businesses. People die from carbon monoxide poisoning after a hurricane or other disaster when trying to generate power, keep warm, or cook using gasoline or charcoal-burning devices. The carbon monoxide (CO) these devices produce is a silent killer – you can’t see it or smell it. To avoid being a victim, always use generators, grills, camp stoves, or other gasoline or charcoal-burning devices outdoors, and keep them at least 20 feet away from any windows, doors, or vents. Use a battery-powered carbon monoxide detector to alert you to any CO in your home.

Power outages can also result in injuries or deaths from fires. If the power is out, try to use flashlights or other battery-powered lights instead of candles. If candles are all you have, place them in safe holders away from anything that could catch fire, and never leave them unattended.

Drink safe water, eat safe food

After a hurricane, it’s important that the water you drink and food you eat is safe. Spoiled food or dirty water can make you and your family sick. Listen for water reports from local authorities to find out if your water is safe for drinking and bathing. If an advisory has been issued concerning contaminated water, use only bottled, boiled, or treated water for drinking, cooking, preparing food, and washing your hands. To keep from getting sick, throw away any food, drinks, or bottled water that may have come in contact with flood or storm water, or any food that has been in the refrigerator if you have been without power for more than four hours.

Stay healthy in shelters

Shelters keep you safe while you wait to return to your home, but can also present some health risks. Illnesses can erupt and spread quickly, which is why CDC and other organizations send experts after a hurricane like Matthew to watch for any sign of an outbreak. It can also be harder to manage chronic illnesses while you’re in a shelter, especially if you need medications or special supplies to care for yourself or your loved ones. Keep extra copies of your prescriptions in case of an emergency.

Home safe home

Be sure to wait to return home until authorities say it is safe to do so. Returning to your home after the storm can present a whole new set of dangers, including downed power lines, flooded roads, and the difficult work of cleaning up. Remember, never touch a downed power line or anything in contact with them. Use chainsaws safely, and wear safety gear like a hard hat, safety glasses, ear plugs, thick work gloves, and boots as you make repairs.

If your home has been affected by flooding, follow these guidelines for safe cleanup after disasters. People with certain health conditions should not take part in the cleanup, and everyone should be careful to use the proper protective equipment. Any items that cannot be washed and cleaned should be removed from the home. Any drywall or insulation that has been contaminated with sewage or flood waters should be removed and discarded. You may want to take photos or hold onto items for which you’ll be filing an insurance claim.

Look around your home and drain any standing water. Standing water after a hurricane or flood is the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. Use insect repellant and consider staying indoors at dawn, dusk, or in the early evening when mosquitoes are most active.

Take care of your mind and heart

The mental and emotional effects of a disaster like Matthew can linger even months or years afterward. Be prepared to cope with feelings of fear, grief and depression. “Loss and displacement are some of the most stressful situations we face in our lives,” says CDC behavioral scientist Ruth Perou, PhD. “Even briefly being in a shelter can be very hard.”

Remember to take care of yourself. Try to get 6 to 8 hours of sleep, eat regular meals, and exercise as much as you can. ”The best thing you can do,” says Perou, “is get back to some sort of routine as quickly as possible, especially for children.”

Stress and feeling overwhelmed are normal and expected reactions to any sudden change. Reach out to family and friends, and talk to others in your community about your worries. Let your child know that it’s okay to feel upset when something bad or scary happens. Coping with these feelings and getting help when you need it will help you, your family, and your community recover from a disaster.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Trained counselors are ready to answer any questions or help cope in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew and other disasters. To connect with them, call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746.

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Page last reviewed: October 20, 2016
Page last updated: October 20, 2016