In addition to street flooding from seasonal rainstorms, South Florida gets an extra dose of standing water throughout October and early November with the stronger-than-normal high tides that can flood low-lying communities, known as the “king tide.”
Some children, teens and young adults think playing in floodwater looks like fun, but experts warn that stagnant water left behind after a rainstorm or king tide can be extremely hazardous. King tide flooding is a result of the strongest high tides of the year, with coastal neighborhoods in southeast Florida being the most vulnerable.
The key dangers from these floodwaters are water-borne illnesses and infections, chemical exposure, drowning and electrical shock, says Fernando Mendoza, M.D. , medical director of the Children’s Emergency Center  at Baptist Children’s Hospital  and associate medical director of Pediatric Emergency Services at West Kendall Baptist Hospital.
Floodwater may be full of bacteria, viruses and parasites that can lead to different types of infections. E. coli bacteria and the parasite cryptosporidium are threats, especially if there has been any sewage leakage. Both can cause diarrheal disease, Dr. Mendoza says.
Contamination of wounds and lacerations also is a risk in flood situations, particularly when people are busy cleaning up after a storm. Vibrio vulnificus, a type of Vibrio bacteria that naturally lives in warm coastal waters, can trigger wound infections that can spread to affect other parts of the body. It also can cause primary septicemia – a bloodstream infection that can result in fever, dangerously low blood pressure and blistering skin lesions.
“The young and elderly with open wounds are at greatest risk for Vibrio vulnificus infection,” Dr. Mendoza said. “And these infections can be life threatening.”
Dr. Mendoza recommends taking these precautions to protect yourself and family members:
- Avoid exposure to flood waters if you have an open wound.
- Cover clean, open wounds with a waterproof bandage to reduce chance of infection.
- Seek medical attention if a wound develops redness, swelling or drainage.
It is common for floodwater to be contaminated with toxic chemicals such as spilled fuel, runoff from waste sites, lawn pesticides and pollutants such as lead, arsenic and other heavy metals. Exposure via inhalation, ingestion or skin contact can cause health problems, including central nervous system depression, dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, slurred speech, disorientation, respiratory tract irritation and dermatitis.
“Children are especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals that disrupt normal growth and development,” Dr. Mendoza said. “Their brains are highly susceptible to the neurotoxic chemicals that can be present in floodwater, so it is imperative to keep them out of it.”
Drowning accounts for 75 percent of deaths in flood disasters, according to the World Health Organization. Regardless of swimming ability or shallow depths, floodwater increases the risk of drowning. When an area becomes flooded, it can be difficult to know the depth of the water or the structural risks that lie below the water’s surface. For this reason, the National Weather Service advises people to “turn around, don’t drown” any time they come to a flooded area.
Standing water can be especially dangerous for small children. “Toddlers can drown in minutes in a few inches of water,” Dr. Mendoza warns. To keep children safe and prevent a tragedy, he advises parents to keep children indoors following a flooding event.
What you can’t see, can hurt you, Dr. Mendoza warns. Fallen power lines can be especially hard to see at night and when hidden in trees or other storm debris. And when a downed power line is submerged in standing water, that water can be electrically charged. Objects like fences, light posts and basketball hoops that have come in contact with a fallen power line also can be energized.
Dr. Mendoza explained, “Contact with electrically charged water or objects can lead to tragedy, including electrical shock injuries and electrocution.”
Prevention is the best strategy to avoid floodwater-related illnesses and injuries. Dr. Mendoza shares a few additional tips:
- Never let children play in floodwater.
- Wash hands and skin immediately after encountering standing water.
- Disinfect children’s toys or other objects that have been exposed to floodwater.
- Never enter a flooded building until the utility company, fire department or a licensed electrician has removed the home’s electrical meter from its socket.
- Wear protective equipment and clothing if it is necessary to enter floodwater.
- Apply insect repellent to combat mosquitoes that may thrive in standing water and carry diseases.
- Beware of wild animals that may be displaced from their natural habitats.