Two years after Hurricane Harvey soaked drywall, ripped holes in roofs and flooded petrochemical plants, experts are still teasing out the ways the storm made survivors sicker.
A team of public health researchers who sprung into action immediately after the storm presented some of their findings at a symposium at the Baylor College of Medicine last month, detailing the ways Harvey and the damage it wrought impacted Texans’ health. Although most of the research subjects were Houston residents, many of the conclusions are applicable to survivors of Hurricane Harvey throughout Texas, including Victoria residents.
Melissa Bondy, a Baylor professor and the head of epidemiology and population sciences at the university, was part of a broad partnership that tracked a range of different health effects with different researchers.
One of the most consistent reports of Harvey survivors who participated in focus groups after the storm was the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder, Bondy said.
“We’ve talked to people who are really concerned and nervous every time it rains,” Bondy said.
One of the most consistent impacts of any major natural disaster is on survivors’ mental health. Experts say natural disasters, particularly those that cause deaths and significant damage to property and infrastructure, can exacerbate survivors’ existing mental health conditions as well as cause new symptoms to arise.
Eric Storch worked with a team to rapidly make mental health providers available to survivors via telemedicine. Although Storch and his colleagues plan to publish more research, Storch said many of the survivors faced mental stressors from after the hurricane, not just the stress and anxiety of the storm itself.
Survivors had to cope with “dealing with trying to sort out insurance if they had that, or if they didn’t have that, what that meant for their livelihood, living in a home that was half ripped out or losing possessions or valuables that were irreplaceable,” he said. They had to face “the stress of having to return to life but also having things in such upheaval.”
Factors from having a list of needed prescriptions and the doctors who prescribed them to creating a plan for how to safely care for a pet during a hurricane are critical to maintaining mental well-being during and after a disaster. For example, Storch said, having to leave pets behind during an evacuation was a major stressor for kids.
Bondy’s team also looked at how floodwaters exposed Houston residents to chemicals and how working and living in water-soaked homes affected their risk of respiratory illnesses. Along with experts at Oregon State University, researchers handed out special wristbands for residents cleaning up their flooded homes and neighborhoods so they could measure exposure to up to 1,530 different chemicals. Harvey flooded or damaged at least 14 hazardous waste sites, including the Formosa plant in Port Comfort.
An analysis of the wristbands showed that an average of 26 chemicals were present in each one. What’s not yet known is how much of certain chemicals, including the ones detected in the wristbands, is needed to affect health.