Waterborne bacteria invades Florida waters
By some estimates, Hurricane Ian has been ranked among the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
The hurricane made landfall in Florida on September 28th as a powerful Category 4 storm. Maximum sustained winds were around 150 mph as it hit the southwest coast at the island of Cayo Costa near Fort Myers and Cape Coral. Within four days more than 2.5 million residents were without power. Wind and storm surges resulted in the deaths of 127 people in Florida alone (with three people currently missing) and an estimated financial cost that spans a conservative $60 billion to a whopping $258 billion.
Death tolls and sickness continue to rise, however, through Hurricanerelated accidents and diseases such as Vibrio, otherwise known as the flesh-eating bacteria.
Shortly after Ian made landfall, the Florida Department of Health offered the prophetic warning: “Flood waters and standing waters following a hurricane pose many risks, including infectious diseases such as Vibrio vulnificus. For that reason, the Florida Department of Health in Lee County is urging the public to take precautions against infection and illness caused by Vibrio vulnificus.”
Indeed, after the hurricane slammed into Lee County, it left in its wake a surge of these rare waterborne bacterial infections, state health data has shown.
The bacteria is found in warm, brackish water such as in estuaries, salt marshes, and points where rivers meet oceans. It can enter the body through broken skin or small cuts and can lead to organ failure and possible death. Before the hurricane struck, 37 cases of Vibrio had been reported for the year, but shortly after the storm, that number shot up to 65 reported infections, 11 of whom have died.
The Lee County residents who were infected by Vibrio after the storm did so through “exposure to Hurricane Ian flood waters that occurred from the storm surge entering their homes or during poststorm clean-up,” Florida Department of Health spokesperson Tammy Soliz told CNN.
And Vibrio is not the only contaminant brought by flood waters, though it is probably the worst. As clean-up efforts continue, at press time, the Florida Department of Health in Lee County is warning against swimming in any recreational water: “The Florida Department of Health in Lee County (DOH-Lee) has issued a countywide precautionary swim advisory for all public beaches and swimming pools and advising the public not to enter the water due to the possible increase of waterborne illnesses.
The water quality has been affected by Hurricane Ian and at this time, swimming is not recommended.
A significant amount of debris remains on area beaches, including debris buried under shallow sand and not immediately visible. It may be extremely dangerous. Recreational visits to area beaches are not recommended.”
An earlier email from the Florida Department of Health was a little more explicit, stating, “Floodwater may contain fecal matter from sewage systems and septic tanks, in addition to agricultural and industrial waste.”
Calusa Waterkeeper and water quality expert John Cassani said the public should avoid going into the water until conditions improve.
“We’re trying to coordinate a fecal bacteria contamination program to monitor all the sewage spills and we’re trying to understand what the risk is now,” Cassani said during the week following the hurricane.
Basically, pools and spas exposed to flood waters contain raw sewage and industrial chemicals and should be cleaned by service professionals.
At press time, at least five of Lee County’s nine public pools were closed to the public due to the impacts of Hurricane Ian.
Damaged Ft. Myers Pool 6 feet above parking lot Photo Credit: Jeffrey Murphy