People affected by Hurricane Harvey are facing myriad challenges, the most basic of which may simply be safely moving through their homes and nearby areas. Standing water from floods can lead to a great deal of health concerns, from basic grime and bacteria to parasites, mosquitoes, and E. Coli. During a natural disaster it’s hard to avoid coming in contact with safety hazards, but it’s important to know how to be safe and stay healthy, even after the water is gone. Here’s how to sanitize your kitchen, eating surfaces, and yourself post-flood.
If you’re staying in a space that lost power due to the storm but is otherwise OK, your sanitation routine shouldn’t be much different than it is on a regular day: After eating, wash your dishes well. If you typically use a dishwasher, it’s obviously out of commission during a power outage. Roll up your sleeves and get ready to hand wash like a boss. Rinse all used dishes well with hot water, then wash them using a clean sponge, hot water, and dish soap. Of course, if the idea of doing dishes in the dark sounds like adding insult to injury, using disposable plates and flatware may be your best option.
If the place where you’re staying was flooded at any point, know that mold can start growing pretty immediately after the water has been drained. Before you think about cooking, eating, or living in a space that has flooded, get the OK that it’s safe to dwell in from an emergency management crew member. If you’re planning to stay somewhere that was flooded and drained, know that it’s important to clean anything touched by the flood water, starting with large appliances.
While I’m all for natural cleaning, bleach tends to be the best way to get rid of the danger that can lurk in standing water. Don a thick pair of gloves and begin; if there’s any food left in the fridge, it’s best to toss it. Next, remove the drawers, and clean the fridge with a solution of one tablespoon of bleach to each gallon of water. After wiping, smear the fridge with a baking soda and water paste, then wipe it out with a towel dipped in the bleach solution. Clean the drawers with the same method. Let the fridge air out for about 15 minutes with the door open, then close the door. Unfortunately, if the refrigerator was even partially submerged in water, the USDA recommends that it should be thrown out.
If the water has gotten into your oven or stove, they too must be cleaned before you use them for cooking. Clean your oven and stove first with the bleach-and-water solution or with a bleach-based kitchen spray, and then deep clean them with the baking soda and water paste. You’ll also want to clean the counters, tables and chairs that water may have touched. If you have porous objects laying around, like wooden cutting boards or plastic flatware, that may have been touched by water, they must be chucked.
After finding out that it’s safe to stay in a previously flooded space, and after making sure you’re prepared to sanitize anything touched by the water, it’s most important to find a clean water source. Bottled water is the safest for drinking and cooking, but boiling tap water will get rid of most disease-causing organisms. If you drink water from a well, it may have been compromised during the flood. Get the well inspected by a professional before drinking its water.
If you don’t use well water, the FDA still recommends boiling water. If your tap water appears cloudy, filter it through a clean cloth or let it sit in a vessel for a few minutes to separate debris from water, then skim the clear water into a pot to boil. Don’t wash dishes with tap water that may be compromised. This is another moment when disposable plates or eating from containers may be the optimal choice.
If you’re not sure where you’ll eat tonight, the best way to stay clean on the go is to carry baby wipes or a mild hand sanitizer to clean your hands before eating. You can also safely wash your hands on the go with a small drop of soap and bottled water. If you can’t find access to soap and water or cleansing wipes or sprays, wipe your hands with rubbing alcohol, witch hazel, or even vodka.
If you’re currently safe from the storm, consider donating to the Red Cross or the Houston Food Bank for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. You can also check out and consider making a donation to the number of organizations and individuals working to help feed those affected.