How hurricanes affect human health

Potential ailments include asthma, allergies and PTSD

Key West during Hurricane Dennis, courtesy of Creative Commons
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When a hurricane hits, destruction of property and displacement are not the only concerns. There are also health issues to consider, ranging from short to long term.

Irina Feygina is the director of behavioral science and assessment at Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists who research and report on climate change.

“With hurricanes, you have multiple natural disasters in one,” Feygina said. You have “winds that destroy buildings and infrastructure from above, and then you get water rising, which destroys it from below, so you get really exacerbated impact.”

According to the World Health Organization, “each of the last three decades has been successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850.”

A warmer planet means more evaporation, which means more water is available for precipitation. Climate Central’s website says, “For every one degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature, the atmosphere can hold around four percent more water vapor, which leads to heavier rain and increases the risk of flooding of rivers and streams.”

A warmer planet leads to more precipitation. Chart courtesy of climatecentral.org

Based on how the climate appears to be changing, it would be prudent for people, particularly in coastal communities, to think about the short and long-term health effects of hurricanes.

Short Term Health Effects

Some of the biggest short-term issues that have come about during recent hurricanes are:

Long Term Health Effects

The health effects of hurricanes are not just during and immediately following the storm. Even after the water recedes and homes are rebuilt, the storm continues.

These are some of the long-term health effects tied to hurricanes:

  • Infectious diseases – During the first three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, received reports of upper respiratory infections and pneumonias, diarrheal disease and tuberculosis, among others. Crowding into evacuation centers, less access to medical care and less drinkable water are all causes for an increase in illness.
  • Mosquitos – Flooding immediately follows a hurricane, and mosquitos lay eggs either in or near standing water, which also collects in gutters, trash cans and puddles on the ground. The CDC says that diseases spread by mosquitos include malaria, West Nile virus and the Zika virus, which was a problem last year when Hurricane Matthew hit Florida.
  • Mold, asthma and allergies – Hurricanes usually occur in warm, damp climates, which means that mold can grow quickly after a storm and lead to respiratory tract irritation. “If somebody has chronic sinus issues, it will get worse. And for people who were previously healthy, who did not have respiratory issues before, they can develop them,” Dr. Sumita Khatri, co-director of the Asthma Center at Cleveland Clinic, told CBS News earlier this month.
  • PTSDStudies show that almost half of Hurricane Katrina survivors suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The Future

Feygina notes that people get completely upended in terms of infrastructure, with their lives ending up, “at worst destroyed, at best, disrupted.”

As an example, Hurricane Katrina was responsible for 1,833 deaths and damage estimated at $151 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and more than one million people were dispersed because of it.

“It’s a connection to others that really matters but also a connection to larger systems that were really disrupted,” Feygina says. “We need to address the destroyed sense of place and community.”

We need to address the destroyed sense of place and community

Feygina also notes that mental health matters before a storm strikes, not just after, because it affects how a person prepares for a disaster. She says it’s a “public health truth that gets avoided a lot.”

Not only do people with mental health problems not have as much strength to bounce back quickly after destruction, but they may not have been as prepared to evacuate in the first place.

“It’s a loop, not just a one-directional thing,” Feygina says. “It’s a cycle that we need to look at.”

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