By Clifton Leaf and Laura Entis
September 5, 2017

Good morning, readers. This is Laura (filling in for Cliff).

Hope you had a great holiday weekend. Unfortunately, with the return of the work week comes news of another hurricane: Irma, which has strengthened into a Category 5 storm, appears to be headed for the Caribbean and Florida.

In the meantime, Houston is starting the long recovery process in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which has claimed the lives of dozens. In the short-term, this includes assessing and clearing the damage.

In the longer-term, it means much more: rebuilding, yes, but also addressing the physical and psychological wounds that can fester long after the water recedes.

Here’s what past storms have taught us. Houston residents can expect an increase in infections (exacerbated by flood waters that merged with sewage and dredged up other toxic debris), and the spread of contagious diseases (aided by crowded conditions in shelters) in the coming weeks. After Katrina, the CDC reported a host of infectious outbreaks among evacuees, including 30 documented cases of MRSA, an infection caused by a type of antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria. As a precautionary measure, Houston residents are advised to stay out of the water get tetanus booster shots.

Complications from chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, and diabetes are also expected to increase post-flood, a danger compounded by the fact that access to medication remains an issue. Past floods indicate that the overall mortality rates will remain elevated for months to come.

And then there’s the emotional toil. Research involving Katrina victims suggests that in the wake of the storm, the city will see a rise in mental health diagnosis. Unlike a surface wound that, when properly cared for, heals within a set time period, emotional scars don’t come with a contained path to recovery. They can linger for months, even years, and flare up again long after the initial, triggering episode.

Studies on residents in regions affected by Katrina, for example, found that the prevalence of PTSD was up 21% a year after the hurricane, while the percentage of those who said they experienced suicidal thoughts climbed from 2.8% to 6.4%. These numbers provide a glimpse at the long road ahead for Harvey victims, many of whom have lost their homes, some of whom have lost loved ones.

As the flood waters recede and the world moves on to the track the next hurricane, Houston (as is true for New Orleans, New York, Hawaii, and so many other cities and regions) will feel the effects of Harvey for years to come.


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