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Louisiana Department of Health & Hospitals | Kathy Kliebert, Secretary

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Floodwater Safety Tips

Monday, January 14, 2013  |  Contact: Media & Communications: Phone: 225.342.1532, E-mail: dhhinfo@la.gov

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals advises people to avoid contact with floodwaters following a hurricane or other severe weather event. Residents are advised to keep the following tips in mind if flooding has occurred near them:

1. Don't Wade or Swim in Contaminated Floodwaters

There is always the possibility that heavy rains or other major storm activity will cause sewage treatment systems (both community and residential) to fail. Sewage disposal ponds and cattle and swine lagoons also can overflow, potentially exposing area residents to disease-causing bacteria. Therefore, residents should not deliberately enter floodwater. It is also important to keep an eye on children and make sure they do not attempt to swim in a flooded area. Do not ever, under any circumstances, drink or ingest floodwater. If people do come in contact with floodwater, they should bathe and wash their clothes with hot, soapy water immediately afterward. People need to be especially cautious about not going in or near floodwater if they have any open wounds because this makes it easier for bacteria to infect them.

Flooding also has the potential to bring snakes, stinging insects and other potentially dangerous wildlife into contact with people. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to pet, pick up or interact with a wild animal. Be cautious in flooded areas because these snakes and other animals might not be immediately visible in the water. If you are bitten by a snake or other wild animal, seek medical attention immediately.

2. Be Aware of Delayed Dangers From Floodwater Contamination

Residents working or living in buildings damaged by water during flooding should be aware of the potential for contamination. State health officials advise residents of these areas to take precautions.

People whose homes are flooded should assume everything touched by floodwater is contaminated with bacteria and will have to be disinfected. Most cleanup can be done with household cleaning products such as bleach or antibacterial products. Residents are advised to wash their hands frequently during cleanup and always wear rubber gloves.

If conditions are favorable, microscopic organisms such as bacteria and fungi can multiply after an initial cleanup has been completed. People who live and work in contaminated buildings run the risk of developing or worsening potentially serious illnesses such as asthma and allergies.

Porous, soft or spongy materials such as carpet, upholstered furniture, sheet rock and bedding that are soaked by floodwater or rainwater dry very slowly.

With sufficient moisture, microorganisms can reproduce in these materials to numbers that can present a health risk after only a few hours.

The only way to effectively prevent this growth is to control the moisture. Once the materials have been contaminated, they must either be thoroughly cleaned or disposed of.

The following guidelines are recommended for cleanup activities:

  • Porous, absorbent, or spongy materials that remain wet for more than 48 hours should be cleaned throughout or thrown away.
  • Materials that can be cleaned should be washed with a detergent solution, rinsed with clear water, and rinsed again with a solution such as 1 1/2 cups of household chlorine bleach mixed with one gallon of water. Allow this solution to stay in contact with the material for five minutes and rinse again with clear water. Avoid skin contact with the solution and use only in well-ventilated areas. Some materials, such as textiles, may be damaged by the bleach solution. Remember that the use of disinfectants is no substitute for drying and cleaning materials.
  • Fungi and bacteria will re-contaminate materials if they remain wet even after very thorough cleaning and disinfecting.
  • Make sure the materials are dry before cleaning. If they cannot be dried out, throw them away. Dispose of them properly.
  • If carpet or other materials become moldy or musty smelling, they are probably contaminated. Carpet cleaning professionals using hot water extraction methods may be able to remove the contaminants. If not, the carpet and padding should be replaced.
  • Contaminated upholstered furniture, bedding and books are much more difficult to clean than carpet and should usually be thrown away because cleaning may be more expensive than replacement.

Handling and cleaning contaminated materials can result in massive exposures to mold, bacteria, viruses and other contaminants.  Individuals with respiratory allergies, or other respiratory illnesses, should not handle or disturb materials that have visible mold growth.

Professional cleaning companies using appropriate personal protective equipment should be used if contamination is extensive.

3. Septic Tanks Could Be Affected By Floodwater

Flooding will keep septic systems and other residential sewage disposal systems from operating correctly until the floodwaters recede. Homeowners should take the following steps if their septic tank system has failed:

  • Avoid using the home's plumbing system if the septic tank or the drain field is still underwater.
  • Do not use the plumbing system if sewage is backing up into the house.
  • Try to reduce the amount of debris entering the septic tank and plumbing systems.
  • Avoid contact with the sewage from septic tanks that are not working - raw sewage is a public health problem and can cause disease.
  • Avoid contact with electrical wiring and electrical components of mechanical sewage treatment systems.

Officials warn that some systems may be so damaged that repairs will be required before they will work again. Significant health problems associated with a residential sewage disposal system that does not work are the release of untreated sewage onto the top of the ground, into streams and bayous, or into stagnant pools left behind by flooding.

For more information about how to deal with failed residential sewage systems contact your parish health unit.