The Health Impacts of Hurricane Harvey—What Nurses Need to Know

Geocolor imagery of Hurricane Harvey on verge of making landfall. Image created by the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere.

As Hurricane Harvey, now a tropical storm, continues to affect a large area of southern Texas and other parts of the South, the full impact on human health has yet to be determined. But it’s clear the flooding has caused a historical crisis in Houston and surrounding areas—and that nurses and other health professionals will be in great demand in the coming days, weeks, and months.

Short- and Long-Term Health Concerns

The short- and long-term health consequences people are facing as they escape rising water levels are detailed in the Washington Post. Although drowning is the most immediate and dangerous threat during a flood, those seeking safety are also endangered by sharp objects and even wild animals caught up in floodwaters. Mold and its impact on human health will be a concern in the coming weeks and months, as water-damaged buildings are reoccupied.

In the meantime, health authorities are worried about the spread of infectious diseases. As sewage contaminates the floodwaters and people crowd into shelters, they may be more susceptible to the development of skin, gastrointestinal, and respiratory infections. A prolonged lack of power, and thus air conditioning during the heat of late summer, is an additional threat to those with health problems. And with people spending more time outside in the coming days and weeks, they’re more likely to be at increased risk for exposure to mosquitoes, which transmit Zika, dengue, and West Nile viruses.

Potential Mental Health Effects Following Disasters

Physical illness and injuries aren’t the only concerns, however. “Climate Change and Mental Health,” a feature in AJN’s April issue, details the myriad mental health effects of disasters. Acute stress disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety can occur among survivors of a traumatic event, especially among those who need to relocate, are separated from family and community, or lose their source of income.

Those working in affected areas and planning to assist in Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts can find useful information in previous Off the Charts posts: “Information for Nurses Who Help in Disasters” and “Essential Reading for Nurses Responding to Disasters.” In addition, the following AJN articles contain information that will be of particular use to nurses involved in disaster relief efforts:

Disaster Care: Public Health Emergencies and Children

Disaster Care: Children of Hurricane Katrina

The Impact of Event Scale—Revised: A Quick Measure of a Patient’s Response to Trauma

Infection Control and Hurricane Katrina: What Nurses Can Learn in the Aftermath of the Disaster

And, if you’re a health or mental health professional interested in deploying to support people affected by Hurricane Harvey, follow this link from the Red Cross. (An overwhelming response to this request has led to a slow connection to their website, but the link is operational, and the organization has urged interested nurses to keep trying.)

About the Author:

AJN senior editor.

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