‘The Plagues of Hurricane Michael’: Severe, Hidden Risks Linger Months After Storm

Risk managers and insurers think a lot about hurricanes and the immediate damage left in their wakes: buildings leveled, businesses ruined. But what about lingering exposures?
By: | April 24, 2019

Risk managers and insurers think a lot about hurricanes and the immediate damage left in their wakes: buildings leveled, businesses ruined.

But what about the lingering damage that still exists months — and even years — later?

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In an excellent article, Eryn Dion of the Palm Beach Daily News explained what has happened to Florida’s panhandle since a Category 4 storm rolled through on October 10 of last year, something she’s dubbed “the plagues of Hurricane Michael.”

“In the months that follow, the residents face rising floodwaters creeping up to their doorsteps and, occasionally, pushing in like an unwanted guest,” Dion wrote.

“Forced outside, they’re tormented by swarms of mosquitoes as the few living trees left are chewed by beetles, both attracted by the floodwaters. Where it’s not flooding, it’s burning, as millions of tons of fuel send wildfires racing out of control.”

Frogs, locusts and lice? More like fire, flood and pests.

Downed trees have combined with dried pine needles to become kindling for wildfires. Just a few weeks ago, 20 homes were evacuated in Bay County as wildfire spread to approximately 678 acres, according to AccuWeather.

Floods are also a major concern, as debris seems to be piling up everywhere water is supposed to be draining: “There’s just nowhere for the water to go, as each tree laying across a stream and each pile of debris in a drainage ditch acts like an individual dam,” according to the Palm Beach Daily News.

While vermin are taking up residence in abandoned homes, deadly insects like the Southern Pine Beetle are seizing their opportunity to invade.

“Pine beetles are attracted by the very wet conditions left behind after the flooding and stressed trees — like trees that have just gone through a Category 4 hurricane — are a favorite target. A pine beetle infestation could wipe out the relatively few tracts of moderately or undamaged forests, killing the trees spared by Michael. The dead trees become ripe fuel for wildfires, and the cycle begins again,” Dion wrote.

What other long-tail risks are associated with hurricanes?

Forbes explained that medical risks can include “parasitic infections such as Cryptosporidiosis and Giardia, which cause prolonged diarrhea” or “viral infections from Hepatitis A, Norovirus or Rotavirus; and bacterial infections from E. coli, Shigella, Salmonella, Vibrio or leptospirosis.”

Pools of stagnant water become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

“After Hurricane Katrina, a doubling of West Nile disease cases was seen in the hurricane-affected areas of Louisiana and Mississippi,” Forbes reported.

If that weren’t enough, drinking and bathing water can also become contaminated.

Risks are heightened in poor areas.

The Center for American Progress reports that housing shortages before recent storms in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have left its poorest residents in water-damaged homes for months.

“What’s more, children and older adults are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of mold spores, generator emissions, and other forms of air pollution; both children’s and older adults’ lungs are more sensitive to pollution. Children’s breathing rate is also faster than adults’, meaning they breathe in more air pollution and irritants.

“For people in Puerto Rico with disabilities, the impact of more than 1,500 damaged roads will result in many disabled people being unable to leave the damaged and mold-ridden homes,” read the Center’s report.

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Meanwhile Forbes argued that tough immigration policies are making people decline medical care they gravely need.

“There has previously been pressure on hospitals to report undocumented people to ICE. While that has stopped as a formal policy, immigrants are delaying seeking vital health care, understandably afraid that they would be targeted. Not only is this cruel, but it is likely more costly, as waiting until an illness becomes catastrophic, and forces an emergency room visit, will be more expensive.”

Want to learn more about post-hurricane risks?

Check out this Associated Press and Houston Chronicle report revealing “far more widespread toxic impact than authorities publicly reported” in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Or read through Duke University’s long list of post-hurricane resources prepared after Hurricane Florence struck North Carolina in September 2018. &

Jared Shelly is a journalist based in Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]

Risk Matrix: Presented by Liberty Mutual Insurance

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