Preparing for a disaster

Published 2:14 pm Friday, September 22, 2017

As we are in the middle of hurricane season, it is always helpful to remember a few tips you can do to protect your health and safety during a disaster.
Prior to most storms, we are given plenty of notice to prepare our home kitchens for the possibility of power loss. The bacteria which can make a person sick cannot be seen or smelled. Food often appears normal even after it has become dangerous to eat. The only way to assess if it is safe is by using an accurate thermometer to determine if any potentially hazardous food has risen above 45°F.

Temperature is the key to controlling most harmful bacteria. Put as many perishable foods in the freezer as soon as possible prior to a disaster. A packed freezer will keep food below 41°F longer than a refrigerator. The refrigerator and freezer doors need to be opened as few times as possible during a power outage to keep foods cold. Food kept in a closed refrigerator will keep for approximately four hours from the time the power went off. After this amount of time food should be thrown away. Food kept in a closed freezer will last for approximately 48 hours. After 48 hours, food should be cooked thoroughly or thrown away. Foods that still have ice crystals on them may be refrozen or cooked properly. Never refreeze thawed foods. If cooked food has been dripped on by raw meats, discard it regardless of what the temperature is, as it probably has been contaminated and is no longer safe to eat. Any food (including food and drinks in cans, plastic or glass containers) that has come into contact with floodwaters should be thrown away. When in doubt, throw it out!

Homes or businesses that use private wells for drinking water should be aware of potential health hazards if their wells become submerged in flood waters. Flooding can introduce contamination into private drinking water sources. Bottled water should be used for drinking and cooking, if available. One gallon of water per person per day is the suggested amount to keep on hand during emergencies. Tap water used for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth or making ice must be boiled for at least five minutes before use. Pregnant women and children should use bottled water instead of tap water or boiled water. Baby formula should be made with bottled water. Boiled water is not good for babies or pregnant women. However, if bottled water is not available, do not use untreated water — use boiled water until bottled water becomes available.

If the home has been flooded, you should have the electrical system checked out by an electrician before turning the power back on. Assume that everything touched by floodwater has been contaminated and will have to be disinfected or thrown away. Wash your hands frequently and always wear protective gear (waterproof gloves and boots, long sleeves and pants, eye protection and a disposable filtering face mask, if possible). Walls, hard-surface floors and counters can be cleaned with soap and water first, then with a solution of 1 cup bleach mixed into 4 gallons of water. Go over the area twice with the bleach solution. Pay particular care to areas where children will be playing. Use a two-bucket method of cleaning — put the cleaning solution in one bucket and the rinse water in another. Change rinse water frequently. If the pilot light on your natural gas furnace or hot water heater has gone out, have it re-lit by a professional.

Additional information concerning disasters and emergency preparedness can be found on our website at or contact our office at 252-946-6048.

Vera Vaughn is an environmental health specialist at the Beaufort County Health Department and can be reached at 252-946-1902.