Know the ABCs of public health

The photos showing the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines are a grim reminder of our need to prepare for disasters. With the upcoming wet season and the potential flooding just around the corner, here are some tips on recovering from any water events that might impact Maui residents.

For every event such as a hurricane or local flooding, there are two disasters. The first is the immediate impact of the disaster. The second is the aftermath where prolonged distress arises from the lack of water, food, shelter, health care and security. This falls into the public health arena where prevention measures can mitigate the second disaster impacting personal health and safety.

There are basic steps that people should remember to practice during the emergency period. The first step is “A”: Avoid contaminated water. Floodwater can contain fecal material from sewage system overflows and runoff from land. Urine and fecal material from birds, rodents and all other animals are everywhere – on the ground, on leaves and on roofs. This runoff ends up in ponds and puddles in yards and streets, so avoid having children play in floodwater areas.

The second step is “B”: Basic hygiene. Make sure hands are washed with soap and clean water before preparing food, after toilet use and after any cleanup activities. Clean water is water that has been boiled and cooled, or disinfected with a chemical such as bleach. Use a ratio of about 4 drops of 8.25 percent unscented bleach per gallon of clear water and let the solution sit for more than 30 minutes. Caution: Bleach will not kill parasites in the water. Neither boiling nor bleach will remove other chemicals such as pesticides or salts in the water.

The third step is “C”: Clean everything. Make sure you have proper protective apparel (gloves and rubber boots), clean areas using a disinfecting solution of cup of 8.25 percent unscented bleach to a gallon of water. Everything means toys, countertop, appliances, furniture, etc. Clothing and linens should be washed and dried before use. For items that cannot be washed, such as mattresses and cushions, drying them in the sun and using a spray disinfectant will help. For items that cannot be cleaned or have become contaminated with floodwater that is contaminated with sewage (What floodwater isn’t contaminated with fecal material?), it is best to discard them properly.

The fourth step is “D”: Dry everything to avoid the growth of mold, bacteria and viruses. These can cause respiratory problems long after the floodwaters have been removed. Having a high-humidity environment may contribute to the increase in dust mites, which can cause allergic reactions and asthma attacks. Surfaces may look dry after cleanup, but the hidden moisture in ceilings and walls can be breeding grounds for microorganisms.

The last step is “E”: Eat unspoiled food and drink potable water. Unopened bottled water or boiled and treated water is a necessity after a disaster. Don’t eat anything that comes in contact with floodwaters since those are filthy. Thawed foods that are refrigerator cold may still be eaten, though if there is any doubt about the safety of any food, better to throw it out.

By following the ABCs of public health after a disaster, residents will have a safer and healthier life while recovering from disaster.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health have more information on how to prepare before a disaster. also has links to preparedness sites and is maintained by our office.

* Marc Nishimoto is the public health preparedness planner for the state Department of Health’s Maui District office.