How Florida residents can stay safe in Hurricane Ian’s aftermath
The storm may have moved out, but Hurricane Ian’s impacts are far from over.
After tearing through the Caribbean, it slammed into the southwest Florida coast as a Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday, September 28, causing widespread devastation – and more than 100 fatalities in the state. (Ian then slowed as it moved up the Georgia and Carolina coasts, but still brought damage as a Category 1 storm.)
This death toll is particularly high. Over last 10 years, an average of 45 people in the United States died during hurricanes annually, according to the National Weather Service.
In the week after the storm, people along the US coast – as well as those still recovering in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona’s impact – have begun to survey the damage, clean up the wreckage and look to repair their homes and communities. But the danger isn’t over.
“Just because a hurricane has passed does not mean that the danger is no longer present. In fact, there can be equally as dangerous conditions after a hurricane as there are during,” said Evan Peterson, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross.
Peterson recommended that people work in pairs and wear protective equipment like gloves, goggles and boots as they begin cleaning up. That’s because they could still be confronted by floodwaters, fallen power lines, downed poles, and contaminated water, among other hazards.
If you encounter a health and safety emergency after a hurricane, get to a safe place and call 911, Peterson said. Here’s more guidance for those going home to pick up the pieces.
First, don’t go back home until authorities say it is safe to do so, Peterson said. The Florida State Assistance line can keep you up to date on road closures and safe alternative routes as you make your way back. (That information line is 1-800-342-3557 or you can visit floridadisaster.org)
If your home isn’t habitable, find a safe place to stay during repairs – and check your homeowner’s insurance policy to see if you have loss-of-use coverage to help pay for lodging while you are displaced, said Mark Jenkins, an AAA spokesperson.
What insurance will cover for renters may vary, but FEMA may help uninsured or underinsured renters with costs related to the hurricane like medical, repair, cleaning and replacement expenses, according to the organization.
The Red Cross also has an app, phone line and website to help people find shelter after a disaster and can even indicate if the shelter is pet friendly, Peterson added.
When you do get back home, it is important to inspect its structure, utilities and other systems, Peterson said. Once it is deemed safe to be in your house and using an electric pump, don’t remove the water too quickly – pumping out water from a flooded basement too quickly might impact the home’s structure, Peterson added, so pump out only about a third of the accumulated water per day.
Whether you’re dealing with flood or tap water, experts urge caution in the aftermath of a hurricane. Avoid drinking tap water until officials say it is safe, and don’t touch flood waters, which may be contaminated with sewage, bacteria or chemicals, Peterson said. Don’t use any electronics that have been flooded until they have been checked for safety and make sure you clean and disinfect anything wet, he added added.
All that water can also result in mold and mildew.
The Red Cross recommends bringing wet items outside to dry more quickly in the air and sunlight. It is also important to keep windows open and fans running to circulate air, throw away anything that absorbed water but cannot be cleaned, and consider removing drywall, insulation and floor coverings impacted by the flood, according to the organization’s website.
And be sure to check with your insurance policy for what items can be replaced and take pictures and document the damage whenever possible, Jenkins said.
Fallen power lines, damaged poles and other downed wires can present a serious risk of electrocution, Peterson said, so avoid them as you return home to repair any damage. If you don’t have power, do not use gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal burning devices inside your home or shelter as they can cause carbon monoxide poisoning, Peterson said.
Carbon monoxide can’t be seen or smelled but is dangerous – so if you feel dizzy, get to fresh air quickly, he said.
Scammers may see an opportunity to take advantage of the destruction in the wake of a hurricane, Jenkins said. Make sure you are the one contacting your insurance to file claims and be on the lookout for unlicensed or deceptive contractors, who can do work that is not up to code or take payment and never come back to finish the job, Jenkins added.
Signs of an untrustworthy contractor include showing up unsolicited, pointing out damage you haven’t noticed, asking for full payment upfront or in cash, promising to waive insurance deductibles or pressuring you to hire them, Jenkins said.
The emotional toll associated with a hurricane can wreak havoc, too. Many hurricane deaths are from what are considered indirect causes, and the leading among them is a heart attack, according to a 2016 study. With that in mind, be sure not to overwork yourself, Peterson said.
Feelings of stress, sadness, anxiety and depression are normal in such circumstances, so if you are struggling with them, you can reach the Disaster Distress hotline at 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746, Peterson said.