Make preparations in advance of tropical storms; be aware of potential hazards


CONTACT: Andy Mullins
(334) 206-7933
CONTACT: Jamey Durham
(334) 206-5634

State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris urges Alabamians to prepare, be aware of the multitude of health hazards associated with damaging tropical storms, and follow all health and safety warnings.

After storms, power and water supplies may be cut off and roads may be flooded or blocked. That is why it is important to have an emergency water supply, emergency food and medicine on hand, and to gather safety and personal items in advance. Safety items include a first aid kit, battery-powered radio, flashlights, extra batteries, and sleeping bags or extra bedding. Residents also need to be prepared for what they may face in the days following the storm.


If an area floods, residents served by municipal water supplies should check with local officials concerning safety of the water. In general, if water pressure was not lost and normal operations were maintained, municipal water supplies should be safe.

The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) urges residents of flooded areas, especially persons living in areas where there may have been flash flooding, to test their private water wells before consuming water from them. Private wells that were covered by flood water should be assumed to have been contaminated. Persons who use private well water should contact the Environmental Services section at their local county health departments about testing and decontamination techniques for their wells.

Floodwaters may contain many forms of pollutants and harmful elements. Contact with these waters should be avoided at all times. Safe sanitation procedures such as hand washing and the thorough washing and cooking of any foods that have been in contact with floodwaters is advised.

Boiling Contaminated Water

Consuming contaminated water can cause health effects ranging from minor physical impact to severe illness or even death. To ensure harmful bacteria and other microbes are destroyed, all tap water within the flooded area used for drinking, food preparation and making ice should be boiled prior to consumption. The water should be brought to a vigorous rolling boil and then boiled for one minute.

Some of the effects of drinking contaminated water can be immediate. These include gastrointestinal illnesses such as nausea, vomiting, cramps and diarrhea. Many factors affect the possible health impact of contaminated water on a person including the following:

  • The age and general health status of the person
  • The amount of contaminated water consumed
  • How long the person has been drinking the contaminated water

Residents in the affected area should also wash hands with antimicrobial products that do not require water. Alcohol-based hand rubs can be used until the boil-water advisory is cancelled. If hands are visibly contaminated, either an antiseptic towelette or bottled water and soap should be used for hand washing.

In lieu of boiling, purchase bottled water or obtain water from some other suitable source, such as a separate water reservoir or other treatment device cleared for marketing by the Food and Drug Administration. Once analysis has been conducted on submitted water samples, and an evaluation has been determined about the water quality, updated information will be provided to the public. Authorities will announce when the boil water advisory has been lifted.

Septic Systems

During heavy rains and floods, the ground can become saturated, preventing proper operation of the system. For example, a septic tank can collapse or float out of position. Signs that a septic system is not working properly include sinks and toilets that drain slowly, floor drains that overflow, and visible sewage outside the home.

If this occurs:

  • Limit water usage when possible.
  • Consider staggering periods of prolonged water usage such as bathing and laundering, when possible.
  • Consider laundering at commercial establishments, as this will significantly reduce the demand on your own system.
  • Inspect disposal areas for depressions where rainwater ponding may occur. Adding soil to these depressions will aid in surface drainage.
  • Inspect roof drainage and gutters to ensure that rainwater run-off is diverted away from the disposal area.
  • Consider having your septic tank pumped out. This may provide temporary relief and may help with maintenance for long-term system performance. ADPH recommends having your septic tank pumped out every three to five years to eliminate sludge build-up.
  • After weather conditions improve, the system should return to normal functioning. If you continue to experience problems with your system, contact your local health department environmentalist for assistance.


After natural disasters such as storms and floods, excess moisture and standing water contribute to the growth of mold in homes and other buildings. When returning to a home that has been flooded, be aware that mold may be present and may be a health risk for your family.

Most molds do not cause infections, but some molds are a health risk to people with breathing problems such as asthma or allergies, or immune problems such as HIV infection, cancer patients taking chemotherapy and people who have received organ transplants.

To protect against health risks associated with mold:

  • Remove standing water from your home, office or business.
  • Remove wet materials such as carpets, pads, insulation, wallboard, pillows and mattresses. If mold growth has already occurred, carefully remove the moldy material.
  • Use personal protective equipment when cleaning or removing mold. These are gloves, goggles and an N-95 particle respirator (found at most hardware stores). This type of respirator may resemble a paper dust mask with a nozzle on the front. Other respirators are made primarily of plastic or rubber and have a removable cartridge that traps most of the mold spores from entering.
  • Do not use a respirator if you have heart disease or chronic lung disease such as asthma or emphysema. While cleaning up, take breaks in a well-ventilated area. Individuals with known mold allergies or asthma should not clean or remove moldy materials.
  • Do not mix bleach with anything except water. Mixing bleach with other liquids could produce hazardous gases from a chemical reaction. Read and follow label instructions carefully. Open windows and doors to provide plenty of fresh air.

For more information, consult the following:

Carbon Monoxide

The public should never use generators, grills, camp stoves or other gasoline, propane, natural gas, or charcoal-burning devices inside a home, basement, garage or camper--or even outside near an open window. Keep these devices at least 20 feet away from any door, window or vent and use a battery-operated or battery back-up carbon monoxide (CO) detector any time you use one of these devices.

CO is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death if breathed. When power outages occur during emergencies such as hurricanes, people often try to use alternative sources of fuel or electricity for heating, cooling or cooking. CO from these sources can build up in a home, garage or camper and poison the people and animals inside. Look to friends or a community shelter for help. If you must use an alternative source of fuel or electricity, be sure to use it only outside and away from open windows.

Exposure to carbon monoxide can cause loss of consciousness and death. The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. People who are sleeping or who have been drinking alcohol can die from CO poisoning before ever having symptoms. Consult a health care professional right away if these symptoms occur.

Important Tips:

  • Never use a charcoal grill, hibachi, lantern or portable camping stove inside a home, tent or camper.
  • Never run a generator, pressure washer or any gasoline-powered engine inside a basement, garage or other enclosed structure, even if the doors or windows are open, unless the equipment is professionally installed and vented. Keep vents and flues free of debris, especially if winds are high. Flying debris can block ventilation lines.
  • Always set up a generator at least 20 feet from your home, doors, windows and vents. Follow this advice:
  • Never run a motor vehicle, generator, pressure washer or any gasoline-powered engine outside an open window or door where exhaust can vent into an enclosed area.
  • Never leave the motor running in a vehicle parked in an enclosed or partially enclosed space, such as a closed garage.

Food Safety

Power outages associated with storm force winds can cause concerns about the safety of frozen and refrigerated foods. As a rule, a full upright or chest freezer will keep foods frozen for about two days without power.

A partially full freezer will keep foods frozen for about one day. This time may be extended by keeping the door shut. A refrigerator will keep foods cool for four to six hours if the door is kept closed as much as possible.

Any thawed foods that have been at room temperature for more than two hours should be discarded. Foods still containing ice crystals can be refrozen, although the quality of the food may decrease. Foods that have thawed to refrigerator temperatures (that is, no more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit) can also be cooked and then refrozen.


Stray animals can pose a danger after a damaging storm. Most animals are disoriented and displaced, so do not corner an animal. Certain animals may carry rabies; therefore, take care to avoid contact with strays. Although rabies is rare, it may be transmitted in Alabama by foxes, bats, raccoons or rarely other animals. If an animal bites you, seek immediate medical attention as soon as possible. If an animal must be removed, contact your local animal control authorities. Also, be on guard against snakes, which may be common in some flooded areas. Anyone bitten by a snake should seek prompt medical attention.

Mosquito Bites

Caution is needed to protect against mosquito-borne illnesses during the recovery phase after a storm. Massive amounts of rainfall from a tropical storm system may create an environment for mosquito populations to flourish; thereby posing a risk to those who are working outdoors during the recovery phase. Mosquitoes can transmit viruses such as West Nile and Eastern Equine Encephalitis that can infect people. When going outdoors, use EPA-registered repellents containing 20 percent DEET on skin or permethrin on clothes. Follow label instructions carefully when using any repellent. Repellents should not be used on infants less than 2 months old. Also, be aware of floating balls of fire ants that are often common in flooded areas. When working in floodwaters, dress appropriately; rubber boots, rain gear and cuffed gloves can help prevent ants from reaching the skin.

Injury Prevention

The public should follow these safeguards against injury while using a chain saw:

  • Operate, adjust and maintain the saw according to manufacturer's instructions provided in the manual accompanying the chain saw.
  • Properly sharpen chain saw blades and properly lubricate the blade with bar and chain oil. Additionally, the operator should periodically check and adjust the tension of the chain saw blade to ensure good cutting action.
  • Choose the proper size of chain saw to match the job, and include safety features such as a chain brake, front and rear hand guards, stop switch, chain catcher and spark arrester.
  • Wear the appropriate protective equipment, including hard hat, safety glasses, hearing protection, heavy work gloves, cut-resistant leg wear (chain saw chaps) that extend from the waist to the top of the foot, and boots which cover the ankle.
  • Avoid contact with power lines until the lines are verified as being de-energized.
  • Always cut at waist level or below to ensure that you maintain secure control over the chain saw.
  • Bystanders or coworkers should remain at least two tree lengths (at least 150 feet) away from anyone felling a tree and at least 30 feet from anyone operating a chain saw to remove limbs or cut a fallen tree.
  • If injury occurs, apply direct pressure over site(s) of heavy bleeding; this act may save lives.

ADPH also recommends that the public use the following guidelines when coming in contact with downed power lines:

If power lines are lying on the ground or dangling near the ground, do not touch the lines. Notify your utility company as soon as possible that lines have been damaged, or that the power lines are down, but do not attempt to move or repair the power lines.

Avoid driving through standing water if downed power lines are in the water. If a power line falls across your vehicle while you are driving, continue to drive away from the line. If the engine stalls, do not turn off the ignition. Stay in your vehicle and wait for emergency personnel. Do not allow anyone other than emergency personnel to approach your vehicle.

Heat-related Illness

Individuals with heart disease, diabetes, obesity, poor circulation, or previous stroke problems, people of older and younger ages, and those taking certain medications are at greater risk of becoming ill in hot weather. Heat-related illnesses occur when the body is exposed to high temperatures. The most common heat-related illnesses are as follows:

Heat cramps – include muscle pains or spasms (abdomen, arms or legs), profuse sweat, and high salt concentration in the sweat.

Heat exhaustion – is associated with heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea, or vomiting and fainting. Other possible symptoms may include cool and moist skin, fast and weak pulse rate, fast and shallow breathing, or irritability. Older adults, those with high blood pressure and those working or exercising in a hot environment are prone to heat exhaustion. If heat exhaustion is not treated, it may progress to heatstroke.

Heat stroke or sun stroke – the most serious heat-related illness, a life-threatening problem, may occur when the body is unable to control its temperature. Body temperature may rise to 106 degrees F or higher within 10 -15 minutes. Signs include an extremely high body temperature, red, hot and dry or moist skin, rapid, strong pulse, throbbing headache, dizziness, nausea, dehydration, combativeness or confusion, and unconsciousness. Heat stroke is a medical emergency and even with immediate treatment, it can be life-threatening or cause serious long-term problems.

In general, drink plenty of fluids except alcohol or caffeinated beverages to prevent dehydration, stay in an air-conditioned room, keep out of the sun by seeking shelter, wear a wide-brimmed hat, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing, and use sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher, take cool showers or baths, and reduce or eliminate strenuous activities during the hottest times of the day.

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