Hurricane Harvey damage was both immediate, severe and now long-term.

Time flies. It has been over a year since Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on Texas in August 2017. Unfortunately, the short-term effects of Hurricane Harvey damage have been replaced by long-term struggles.

In a storm like Harvey, there are many medical emergencies. Some occur right away, as people are left stranded in floodwaters. Others occur as people begin to recover in the days after the storm. Still, other emergencies occur because of lingering physical, mental and emotional health problems long after Harvey has gone.

Short-Term Hurricane Harvey Damage

In the short term, Houston hospitals saw injuries from immediate dangers caused by people wading through flood waters. After days and weeks, longer-term issues like mold set in, meaning respiratory issues set in too. As the days and weeks dragged on, many people began to develop prolonged stress and mental health issues that Harvey brought to so many Houstonians.

Emergency rooms were inundated with cuts and abrasions and even broken bones after Harvey — all stemming from people being in the water when they shouldn’t have. Thousands of stitches were sewn after people stepped on shards of glass or sharp, jagged metal that was floating in the floodwaters.

Flood Waters, Sewage and Infections

two photos showing how water rose two feet or more during Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey Flood via JillCarlson.org

When was the last time you had a tetanus shot? This was the question on the minds of many Houstonians after cutting themselves on metal debris, unseen in the water. The problem was that many Houstonians couldn’t even get to a clinic because of the large amount of debris, or because they didn’t have a functional automobile. Residents across the city asked Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to provide mobile medical units to administer tetanus shots.

Flood waters are nasty, to put it mildly. Homes or businesses classified as contamination Category 3 were the worst; this refers to black water, or sewage water in buildings. Sewage systems across the city overflowed with human waste that flowed freely into flood waters. Even a year after Hurricane Harvey, officials are trying to reduce the fecal matter in the San Jacinto River.

Infections were rampant during and after Harvey. A large majority of cases were cuts on the feet that had become infected. People had not worn adequate foot protection in the water, and even a small amount of water can seep in and cause infection. You don’t even have to have an open wound to get infected. Bacteria from flood waters can seep into openings in your toenail or fingernail cuticle and infect your body.

In one day, one clinic saw four patients with severe toe infections. Doctors said that if the patients had waited one or two more days, they would have had much more serious problems, perhaps even requiring amputation.

Some people around the city were infected with Vibrio vulnificus pathogens, more commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria. Vibrio infections are extremely rare, but during floods, these deadly microbes are swept in from the open ocean into urban areas. The floodwaters after Harvey contained literally billions of various pathogens and bacteria, even E. coli that comes from fecal matter. When ingested, E. coli can make people very ill, with severe diarrhea and other intestinal symptoms.

Water testing in many homes revealed bacteria levels hundreds of times above the safe level. It is very important to remember that floodwater mixes with everything below it — fields with pesticides, manure, broken sewer pipes — everything. This is why many areas around the city issued boil advisories for drinking water.

Injuries From Animal Contact

Microbes, metal and glass are joined in floodwaters by all sorts of critters. One of the biggest issues was fire ants, which clump together in the water and use any floating object as a raft. The ants will cling together and form their own raft, placing the larvae and queen in the middle for protection. Insect experts say that some of these rafts have 100,000 ants and can survive for weeks adrift. Once they find dry land, they start a new colony.

Boaters came into contact with the ants, which immediately boarded their boats in throngs to escape the water. Some ant rafts were so large that flood victims mistook them for floating solid debris, not realizing the fire ant danger until it was too late.

Snakes were everywhere. They naturally seek high ground and needed to be in the water to do so. Houston saw their share of snakebite cases after Harvey, whether venomous or non-venomous.

As floodwaters receded, pockets of water were left in the 100-degree-plus temperatures, making the perfect mosquito breeding ground. While this was not an immediate problem – the flood waters washed away much of the larvae – as soon as the floodwaters receded there were once again stagnant pools of water and mosquitoes began laying eggs in force.  These pests carried all kinds of diseases like West Nile virus and Zika.

Hurricane Harvey near the coast of Texas at peak intensity late on August 25, 2017

Hurricane Harvey near the coast of Texas at peak intensity late on August 25, 2017.
ABI image captured by NOAA’s GOES-16 satellite – RAMMB/CIRA SLIDER

Mold in the Aftermath of Hurricane Harvey

Mold is always a problem in the humid climate of Houston, but it was and still is a major aftereffect of Harvey. Mold formed in the days and weeks after the hurricane; homes appeared dry, but were far from it, with mold forming and spreading between sheetrock and insulation.

Although contractors flooded in from all over the nation, there were still only so many people to address thousands and thousands of homes. Many homeowners were forced to wait to begin the remediation process.

Mold can grow out of control within days. Mold is incredibly irritating to the respiratory tract. It can create irritation and damage and is a particular concern in people who suffer from asthma, chronic sinusitis, COPD, emphysema and other respiratory issues. Many people who were perfectly healthy before Harvey developed respiratory issues from prolonged exposure to these molds.

Chemical Irritants

Texas is the oil capital and abounds with chemical plants. One-third of America’s oil is processed in the region. Harvey caused many chemical plants to go offline. Primary and backup generators shut down unexpectedly, which caused refrigeration systems to shut off as well. As a result, volatile chemicals were not kept cool, and the chemical plants became unstable.

Chemical fires at the Arkema plant outside Houston received national media attention. Even before the storm hit, many refineries and chemical plants had no choice but to intentionally burn chemicals into the atmosphere to keep the plant safe during the storm. Chevron Phillips burned nearly 800,000 pounds of chemicals before Harvey hit.

Stress, Not All Hurricane Harvey Damage is Physical

Needless to say, Houstonians were under tremendous stress during and after Harvey. Stress can negatively affect the brain and the immune system. People were housed closely together and many people were displaced from their homes for months. Still a year later, many people have symptoms of PTSD. They have trouble sleeping and have panic attacks at the sound of rainfall or when they hear rushing water.

The more people are disadvantaged, the worse these problems typically are. People with less education and lower incomes often have many mental health issues in the aftermath. It has only been a year, but many people’s homes are still not recovered, so the depression and fear are still very real for many Houstonians.

Certain groups are more vulnerable. Women tend to have or take on more problems than men, as do the elderly and children. Many elderly people and children experienced great trauma at having to leave their homes. For both groups, the home is their ultimate security, and being uprooted was traumatic.

There are also many Houstonians who were not directly flooded, but nevertheless, are affected by all the pain and suffering around them.

If you want to help Houston recover one local organization that has been very helpful and you can donate to is The Humble Area Assistance Ministries (HAAM).

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