How to stay safe during heavy rain and floods

By The Health News Team | February 1, 2024
Severe weather highway sign

It’s been called The Great Flood of 2024. With rain falling up to two inches per hour and hundreds of residents forced from their homes due to rising floodwaters, the recent San Diego storm was one for the history books. What’s more, it’s soon to be followed by two systems that could add several inches of rain across the county, wind gusts up to 50 mph and damaging floods.

Beyond the stress and loss weather like this can cause, the risk of health concerns rise along with the massive waves the storms bring. The greatest concern is, of course, death.

“Floods are one of the leading causes of weather-related deaths in the U.S.,” says Dr. Abisola Olulade, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “The most obvious risk is death due to drowning when people get trapped in their homes or cars, or when they try to wade through the waters.”

How your health can be affected by heavy rain and floods

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), floodwaters can carry elements that are harmful to your health. And it’s often difficult to determine what may lie under the water’s surface.

Floodwaters, the agency says, can contain:

  • Downed power lines

  • Human and animal waste

  • Household, medical and industrial hazardous waste

  • Coal ash waste that can contain cancer-causing materials

  • Other germs and contaminants that can lead to illness

  • Large objects, such as lumber, vehicles and debris

  • Animals, such as rodents and snakes

“When it comes to flood water, it is contaminated with things like human waste, animal waste and bacteria that can cause serious illness,” Dr. Olulade says. “We sometimes see skin infections, gastrointestinal illness and even electrical shocks. People can also get injuries from debris in floodwater.”

How to prepare for a coming storm

As the next storm approaches, the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services asks people to be ready to avoid the risk of danger and illness. They recommend the following key steps:

  • Review your family disaster plan — with strategies for different times of the day when family members may be at school or work — or create one if you don’t yet have a plan. Include where you’ll reunite if separated.

  • Be prepared to rapidly evacuate and practice evacuating, including how you will disconnect all electrical appliances and turn off electricity at the panel, gas service at the meter and water at the main valve.

  • Have a “go-kit” filled with necessary items in case you need to evacuate. It should include food, water, medications, a flashlight, basic first aid items, a change of clothing, a plastic tarp and blankets. An emergency contact list may be needed if your mobile phone is lost, out of battery or broken.

  • Make sure pets are microchipped and you are prepared to evacuate with them.

  • Register cellphones with Alert San Diego so that you will be notified if an emergency is affecting your neighborhood. You can also download the SD Emergency app to receive updates.

  • Know where to get sandbags to protect your property and collect them before the arrival of a rainstorm. In San Diego, the County of San Diego and CAL FIRE offer free sandbags.

How to protect yourself and others in a flood

It’s crucial, Dr. Olulade says, to evacuate when told and avoid entering floodwaters unless it is an extreme emergency. If you are unable to evacuate and trapped in a building, go to the highest level. Go to the roof only when necessary to escape rising floodwaters and signal for help. Do not go into a closed attic.

If you must enter floodwater, wear rubber boots, rubber gloves and goggles. Do not touch any downed power lines or broken gas lines and report them immediately to the police or fire department. And do not drive into standing water — it may be deeper than it appears.

After coming in contact with floodwater, the CDC recommends you wash all exposed areas with soap and clean water as soon as possible. Clean all clothes and tapestries before wearing or using them again. Treat any wounds and talk with your doctor if you’re concerned about infection.

“It’s very important that you prepare ahead of time,” Dr. Olulade says. “If you do have to go into the waters, make sure you cover all parts of your body. Seek care if you are injured, become ill or think you may have an infection.”

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