Hurricane Sandy’s Toll on Public Health

November 8, 2012
Todd Sanford
Former contributor

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many of the images that stand out in my mind deal with a loss of place and structure. Photos of a burned-out Breezy Point in Queens. Atlantic City and the loss of its iconic boardwalk. Less prevalent, however, seem to be photos of direct human suffering and health impacts. I’m thinking of people paddling down flooded streets or waiting to be rescued on rooftops. Though the infrastructure impacts from Sandy will clearly be very costly, the significant public health impacts and continued health risks should also be a central part of the response and planning discussion.

The human toll and hidden health risks of Hurricane Sandy

This post is part of a series on Hurricane Sandy: Confronting the Realities of Climate Change.

As of last weekend, the death toll from Sandy stood at more than 180 people from the Caribbean to Canada, with more than 110 deaths in the U.S. alone. Many people were killed by falling trees. Drowning, touching live electric wires, and carbon monoxide poisoning from generators run in enclosed spaces were other frequent causes in this sad litany.

The hidden health risks associated with flooding from events such as Sandy include waterborne diseases contaminating drinking water and bacteria and sewage in local waterways. The latter was evident in Hoboken, New Jersey, one of the worst hit areas on the East Coast, where thousands of people were stranded in their homes while the streets filled with sewage-contaminated floodwaters. National Guard troops were forced to go in and stage a massive rescue effort.

Research has shown that over half the outbreaks of waterborne diseases in the U.S. occur in the wake of heavy rains and flooding such as we saw with Sandy, and that floodwaters may contain more than a hundred types of disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

The health impacts of Hurricane Sandy in the Caribbean

Long before Sandy became an unprecedented meteorological phenomenon and threatened havoc on the heavily populated and developed East coast, it was taking a significant human toll in the Caribbean.

Most recent estimates of lives lost in this region are around 69. However, this number may be off quite a bit as making mortality estimates can be quite challenging in a developing country such as Haiti, especially in the weeks to months right after the disaster. Also, these numbers likely represent fatalities associated with direct physical trauma or drowning. The health impacts can continue long after the waters have receded.

In less developed countries, access to clean drinking water is already a constant struggle for many. A flooding event, such as that from Sandy, only compounds this problem. The more hidden health impacts of a major disaster may take time to emerge—as demonstrated by a major outbreak of the water-borne disease Cholera in Haiti a year after the earthquake. Many people rely on public waterways in these regions, due to lack of water supply infrastructure. These can be at high risk of sewage contamination during floods and pose a serious public health threat.

The health risks from Hurricane Sandy will likely continue for some time

Though the storm has passed, the hidden health risks from flooding will likely continue for some time. As we rebuild our homes and infrastructure, we can’t take our eyes off of our health.

Flooded homes and buildings create a breeding ground for mold, which can cause debilitating respiratory and neurological problems. Exposure to mold in inundated structures can, among other things, increase the risk of asthma in children and pose a lingering health threat well after the flood.  But in resource-strapped areas funds for mold removal and cleaning up waterways may be non-existent. Mental health problems, such as stress and depression, also tend to increase in the wake of extreme weather disasters.

Gauging the true cost of Hurricane Sandy

Losses from extreme events often have dollar figures attached to them as a measure of their destructiveness.  But how does one put a dollar figure on a human life? How does one account for the debilitating toll from all the injuries and sicknesses caused by Sandy?

Public health impacts from extreme events are real and no less of the story than losing buildings, homes, or transit systems. But putting a true cost on them is challenging.

As we move forward and prepare for the next one it will be critical to have protection and response measures in place to reduce fatalities from drowning, electrocution, and physical trauma.  But no less important is knowing what other lingering health risks we face from these events and what we can do to prepare for those.

We have to search for ways to build communities that are more resilient to the ravages of extreme weather events in a warming world.

This post was co-authored with Rachel Cleetus, UCS Senior Climate Economist.