Be safe when flooding occurs

Flooding is affecting areas along the Mississippi River in parts of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Heed these health tips to stay safe.

LA CROSSE, Wis.  — With the snowmelt and recent rains, the National Weather Service says major flooding has occurred or is forecast along the Mississippi River in portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Health care professionals at Mayo Clinic Health System have several health-related tips to stay safe if the water rises.

A submerged car in flooded areas
Source: Canva

“First and foremost, be safe. Do not walk, swim, drive or ride in a car through floodwaters,” says Michael Bassett, M.D., family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse. “As little as 6 inches of moving water can knock you off your feet.”

In order to keep children safe, Dr. Bassett says you shouldn’t allow them to play in or near floodwater or in areas recently flooded. 

“Flash floods are the No. 1 weather-related killer in the U.S. Kids should never play around high water, storm drains or viaducts,” says Dr. Bassett. “In the meantime, make sure your children participate in regular handwashing, especially before meals. I’d encourage parents to disinfect toys that may be contaminated by washing them with a solution of 2 ounces of bleach in 1 gallon of water. Discard any soft toys that may be contaminated.”

Floodwater may be contaminated, but it’s unlikely that simple skin contact will make you sick, even if raw sewage is visible.

“However, swallowing floodwater or anything that’s been contaminated could make you sick. You should check with a physician or with your local public health office if you show signs of illness (fatigue, nausea, swelling, fever, etc.),” says Dr. Bassett.

Regarding food supplies, Dr. Bassett says you should try to keep refrigerators close to 41 degrees Fahrenheit.  If power is lost, a refrigerator will keep food cool for four to six hours if left unopened. Other tips include:

  • Keep frozen food from thawing. Without power, your freezer will keep food frozen for one day if the freezer is half full and up to two days if the freezer is full and left unopened.
  • “Commercially canned foods in good condition are safe if you remove the labels. Wash sealed cans with warm water and detergent, and then disinfect them using a solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach to 1 gallon of clean water. Destroy canned goods if the can surface is badly rusted or pitted, swollen or leaking, or badly creased or dented at the rims and seals,” says Dr. Bassett.
  • Rigid plastic containers without a screw top are safe if they are not defective; the container has not been submerged in water or other liquids; any soil can be removed; and the closure has no soil, rust or dents.
  • Discard foods that have come in contact with floodwater that are prepackaged in paper, boxes, glass jars with screw tops or other nonwaterproofed packages.
  • “If in doubt, throw it out,” says Dr. Bassett.

With floodwaters overflowing, it puts drinking water at risk.

“Listen to and follow public announcements regarding community water systems,” suggests Dr. Bassett. “Local authorities will tell you if tap water is safe to drink or to use for cooking or bathing. If the water is not safe to use, follow local instructions to use bottled water or to boil or disinfect water for cooking, cleaning or bathing.”

To be safe, residents could boil or disinfect water. Dr. Bassett says boiling water for one minute will kill potential bacteria. If unable to boil water, add 1/8 teaspoon (~0.75 mL) of newly purchased, unscented liquid household bleach per gallon of water. Stir the water well, and let it stand for 30 minutes before you use it. You can use water-purifying tablets instead of boiling water or using bleach. For infants, use only preprepared canned baby formula. Do not use powdered formulas prepared with treated water.

When the floodwater recedes, another problem people should look out for is mold.

“People who are sensitive to mold may experience a stuffy nose, irritated eyes, wheezing or skin irritation,” explains Dr. Bassett. “To protect your lungs against mold, wear a mask while you’re in an area that has mold growth. When the waters recede, clean up and dry out the building quickly within 24 to 48 hours. Open doors and windows. Use fans to dry out the building. To clean moldy surfaces, make sure to wear gloves to protect your hands and use a mixture of 1 cup bleach to 1 gallon of water when cleaning.”

Other areas of concern to avoid both short-term and long-term health issues include:

  • When treating injuries, clean out all open wounds and cuts with soap and clean water. Apply an antibiotic ointment. Contact a health care professional to find out whether more treatment is needed, such as a tetanus shot. If a wound gets red, swells or drains, seek immediate medical attention.
  • “Anyone who comes in contact with floodwater should make sure they’re up to date on their tetanus shot. Tetanus can invade openings in the skin during flooding, causing a health issue called lockjaw. Lockjaw causes a painful tightening of the muscles all over the body and can lead to ‘locking’ of the jaw so a person cannot open his/her mouth or swallow. It can also cause painful and potentially harmful muscle contractions throughout the rest of the body,” explains Dr. Bassett. 
  • If you plan on helping others clean up from the flooding, you should make sure you’re up to date on your tetanus shot. A person should receive their tetanus shot once every 10 years.

“Lastly, pace yourself and get support. Be self-aware of physical and emotional exhaustion or strain,” adds Dr. Bassett. “Set your priorities for cleanup tasks, and pace the work. Try not to work alone. Don’t get exhausted. Ask your family members, friends or professionals for support. If needed, seek professional help.”

About Mayo Clinic Health System

Mayo Clinic Health System consists of clinics, hospitals and other facilities that serve the health care needs of people in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The community-based health care professionals, paired with the resources and expertise of Mayo Clinic, enable patients in the region to receive the highest-quality physical and virtual health care close to home.

About Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse

In 2022, Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse is the only health care facility in Southwest Wisconsin that has received the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid’s 5-Star Quality Rating and Leapfrog Grade A for Safety. It was also named one of Newsweek’s “Best Hospitals in the U.S.” and high performing in five medical conditions and specialties by U.S. News & World Report.

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