Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Corbett, said, "We face a public health emergency because sewage treatment plants are underwater and no longer working. Flood water is toxic and polluted. If you don't have to be in it, keep out."
A dozen towns in Vermont are on orders to boil their water, even 12 days after the passage of the storms. Similar precautions are being taken in other states damaged by the storms. The department of health is distributing test kits so private well owners can check for bacteria in their drinking water. Officials warn that if the water smells like gasoline or other petroleum products, other tests will be necessary.
Dr. Henry Chen, Vermont's health commissioner said, "It's clearly one of the biggest concerns after any disaster, including flooding. You have to ask yourself, 'is my water safe?"
In Waterbury, Vermont, the municipal wastewater plant was overwhelmed by the flooding and raw sewage flowed into the nearby river. According to one report, the smell of sewage is strong. On top of that, failed septic systems are a common cause of contamination after many different types of disaster, including floods.
For us, the lessons are clear:
- Don't fall into the trap of thinking a relief organization is going to rescue you from the problem in just a couple of days. Here we are 12 days after the storm, and the problems persist.
- Store a long-term water supply that can remain free of contamination. In addition to bottled water, consider a few 55-gallon plastic barrels and a siphon kit.
- Be prepared to filter available water. Boiling won't remove or destroy inorganic contaminants such as solvents and petroleum products. In fact, boiling will concentrate those pollutants in the water.
- Have an evacuation plan so you can remove yourself from the disaster area to a safe location until the situation can be stabilized.