This Horror Story Exemplifies the Devastating Health Effect of Hurricanes

As we all watch the devastating scenes from Hurricane Harvey and Irma, it’s impossible to not dwell on the turmoil in store for the states affected. When hurricanes hit our land, they are disruptive, destructive, and very expensive. And those are just the short-term effects.

If you’ve visited the New Orleans area in recent years, you’ve probably noticed that they still aren’t fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina. The truth is, hurricane recovery goes way beyond cleaning up the physical damage left behind.

The terrifying long-term health effect of hurricanes

A shot of the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricanes can be terrifying while in effect — but huge obstacles come with the aftermath. | Karl Spencer/iStock/Getty Images

If you’ve heard the stories of alligators swimming through Hurricane Harvey’s flood waters (or seen the horrifying videos of clusters of fire ants swimming around), you know there are a lot of scary things that go way beyond water damage. But what many people don’t realize is that the water itself is tainted, sometimes for years.

Waterborne and communicable respiratory and gastrointestinal disease can easily spread through the water, lingering for years to come.

A sad death from a rare brain-destroying amoeba

Buildings and houses flooded by Hurricane Harvey.

Water contamination is a top concern for victims. | Karl Spencer/iStock/Getty Images

In 2013, a 4-year-old boy from Mississippi was visiting a home in St. Bernard Parish in southeast New Orleans. While playing on a Slip ‘N Slide, he came in contact with a brain-destroying amoeba called Naegleria fowleri. Sadly, he did not survive.

Experts said the Naegleria fowleri resulted from the Slip ‘N Slide being out in the mud and water for over a 12 or 14-hour period in very hot conditions. Faint traces of the amoeba were also found in the water tank of the toilet inside the house and in the tap water, but when fresh water sits for a long time, it has time to incubate and grow.

What is Naegleria fowleri?

Floodwater surrounds a home after Hurricane Harvey.

Water contamination and exposure to bacteria led to the death of a young boy. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Naegleria fowleri is a deadly single-cell amoeba. Naegleria is actually quite common, often found in fresh water across the country. Naegleria fowleri is the only strain that infects people.

Luckily, Naegleria fowleri infections are rare in the U.S. Only 40 infections have been reported in the last 10 years. But the fatality rate for this infection is over 97%. Only 4 people out of 143 known infected people in the U.S. from 1962 to 2016 have survived.

 How Hurricane Katrina led to the Slip ‘N Slide death

A woman walks through a river in New Orleans.

This amoeba had never been found before Hurricane Katrina. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

According to experts, Hurricane Katrina more than likely led to the death of the 4-year-old boy in 2013. It was the first time the amoeba had been found in the tap water in the U.S.

Obviously, this wasn’t a case of toxic amoebas spreading through the immediate floodwaters. Instead, the state health department said the microbe grew in water pipes that stretched across neighborhoods that had been hit by the hurricane. As fewer people drew on water supplies, water sat in the pipes for longer, creating the perfect environment for the deadly amoeba to grow.

Flushing the pipes repeatedly with fresh water and chlorine disinfectant can help. But the problem has remained.

Other post-Katrina deaths from Naegleria fowleri

A mature woman looking sad as if she were praying.

The elderly and the young are especially susceptible to illnesses caused by hurricanes. | RuslanGuzov/iStock/Getty Images

Naegleria fowleri has been associated with three deaths in Louisiana since 2011, health officials said. In 2011, a 51-year-old woman and a 28-year-old man both contracted the infection by using contaminated water in neti pots. The rare but serious dangers of neti pots have long been known, so it is unclear whether these two infections had anything to do with Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath.

Other health effects from hurricanes

Truck underwater after Hurricane Harvey.

You can never be too careful around tainted waters. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The devastating death of the 4-year-old boy is a painful lesson about expecting the unexpected after a flood. Fortunately, however, most after-effects from hurricanes aren’t as serious. Respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases from tainted water, sunburns, insect bites, and dehydration are all common, but temporary.

Other long-term risks include exposure to chemicals and heavy metals (lead and mercury never leave soil), not to mention the other contamination risks. The water spreads over gas stations and storage depots, and there’s no telling what could spread.

How you can help

Residents board up their windows.

There are tons of ways for you to get involved. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Even if you’re not in an area that has been directly affected, you’re probably feeling emotionally impacted by Hurricane Harvey and Irma. Luckily, there are plenty of ways you can help.

A cash donation is the best thing any organization can receive, even food banks. But do your research. To directly help those whose health has been affected, consider Direct Relief or The American Kidney Fund. Direct Relief is providing funding and emergency help to kids in community health centers in Texas, and The American Kidney Fund has set up a disaster relief fund to help dialysis patients.