Not in Kansas Anymore:  IAQ surprises from Major Storms

Henry Slack and Tim Wallace


In 2004, four hurricanes crisscrossed Florida within a few weeks.  Carbon monoxide (CO) poisonings, from emergency power generators was an unexpected result.  Over fifty different incidents, and six fatalities, were reported during surveillance.  Florida Department of Health has responded with educational materials in English and other languages that warn people about the dangers of carbon monoxide as it relates to portable generators.


In 2005, Katrina flooded New Orleans.  Later that fall, volunteers and workers flooded in, trying to renovate buildings and remove the molds.  News media discussed a “Katrina cough”, although surveillance of local emergency rooms did not detect a significant increase in respiratory complaints.


People displaced by Katrina were moved into all manners of temporary housing units by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA.  Many trailers were found to have significant levels of formaldehyde, a lung irritant and known human carcinogen.  The formaldehyde was released from pressed wood products used in the temporary housing units.  The problem was exacerbated by high ratio of these products to the small volume of air space in the units.  Although levels could be lowered by leaving windows open, the warm and humid climate made this action uncomfortable for the residents.  FEMA has since asked states to determine a limit for formaldehyde in disaster housing missions.


Some lessons for public health officials:


  • Loss of electrical power leads indirectly to CO poisoning.  Warnings should begin whenever a loss of power seems probable, and continue for several days afterward, since more incidents occur a day or two afterward.  Public education should match the storm season, and include pursuit of warning labels and limits on emissions.


  • Disaster planning should be carried out by teams of public officials and include some worst-case scenarios.   Documents should be placed on Web sites.  Paper documents should in storage near likely locations of need for easier distribution after a disaster.  Announcements for the media can be prepared by this group, and should extend well past the date of the disaster.  After this disaster is over, a group of officials can evaluate the response and see how to improve before the next one.