Q & A: Riding Out the Storm Safely

Q and A on How to Stay Safe in Hurricane Sandy's Aftermath

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 30, 2012 -- Sandy is being called a "once in a generation" storm and it's unfortunately seeming to live up to its title.

Millions are without power, and may be for some time to come. Others have evacuated, or will, escaping the torrential rains and winds that have gusted up to 90 miles per hour.

Here is what those riding out the storm need to know and do to keep themselves and family members safe.

Q: Once the power is out, how long will refrigerated foods last?

A: Refrigerated foods, once the power is off, will stay cold for about four to six hours. To increase the time, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible.

If a freezer is full, the temperature will be maintained for about 48 hours. If it's half full of food, figure 24 hours.

Q: What foods should be eaten first, after power is off?

Start by eating leftovers, meat, poultry, and any foods with milk, cream, soft cheese, or sour cream.

If frozen foods still contain ice crystals, they may still be safely cooked and eaten (or re-frozen, if power is restored).

Fruits that were frozen can be eaten if they still taste and smell good.

Vegetables that are completely thawed shouldn't be eaten, since bacteria multiply quickly.

If meat or poultry has thawed and has been warmer than 40 degrees F for two hours, discard it.

Discard melted ice cream.

Some foods typically refrigerated keep at room temperature for a few days. Among them: butter, margarine, hard cheese, fresh fruit, and vegetables (except sprouts or fresh, sliced fruit), fruit juice, dried fruits, or coconut. Opened jars of vinegar-based salad dressing, jelly, relishes, taco sauce, and barbecue sauce are typically also OK to eat. Mustard, ketchup, and olives generally keep at room temperature for a few days, too.

Q: What about water? If we run out, what supplies can we tap?

Use ice, soft drinks, and fruit juices as water substitutes. Remember older adults, nursing mothers, and children need more water than others.

Check hidden sources of water: the hot water tank, water in the plumbing, the reservoir toilet tank (not the bowl). These water supplies need to be disinfected, however.

To disinfect by boiling, bring water to a rolling boil for one or two minutes, then cool. If you have no power, disinfect with bleach. Bleach will kill some but not all organisms that could be in the water. Add eight drops to a gallon. Stir, then let stand for 30 minutes. Note: both FDA and USDA sources listed say this for cloudy water: If the water is cloudy, filter it through clean cloths or allow it to settle, and draw off the clear water for disinfection.

If you have iodine tablets, follow package directions. Be sure their expiration date has not passed.

Q: What precautions do I need to take for medications that need refrigeration, such as insulin or reconstituted drugs?

If power has been out for a lengthy period, thrown them out. However, if you have no way to obtain new supplies and the medicine is crucial, such as insulin, continue to take it until you can get fresh supplies.

Pills that have gotten wet from flood waters should be discarded, as they could be contaminated.

Q: What about the risk of hypothermia, the dangerous drop in body temperature?

If you are without heat and the temperature drops, first close off rooms you don't need.

If you have a fireplace, or wood stove, be sure it is adequately vented to the outdoors. Don't use propane in the house to stay warm.

Dress in layers. Use blankets. Wear a hat to keep body heat up. Be especially sure elderly family members and infants follow these measures. They are more vulnerable to hypothermia.

Q: If water gets into my house, how do I avoid electrocution?

If flooding is likely, turn off natural gas and electricity. If you don't have a chance to do that and the basement floods, do not enter the basement. If any electrical wires are in contact with the water, electric shock can occur.

Call the electric company immediately.

Q: Is it OK to use a portable generator?

Generators should only be operated outdoors, as carbon monoxide can build up and cause lethal poisoning if used indoors. Only use the generator in a dry outdoor location -- which may be impossible in the hurricane's aftermath.

Q: What about reducing the risk of mold?

As soon as possible, get standing water out of your house. Remove standing water by using a mop, pail, or a wet/dry shop vac, if you have power. Open the windows. If you have a fan and power, use it to help reduce remaining moisture.

Discard materials that don't dry out -- mold can cause severe allergic reactions.

If water is in the walls, call a professional water damage service.

Q: When evacuating, how can I best stay safe in a car?

Be on the lookout for live wires in the roads and do not drive over them.

Bypass streets submerged in water. Your car could be carried away, even with what looks like low water levels.

Be aware of the threat of the road collapsing. Drive as slowly and steadily as you can.

If your car becomes trapped in the water, abandon it if possible.


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SOURCES: FDA: "What Consumers Need to Know About Food and Water Safety During Hurricanes, Power Outages, and Floods." USDA: "Emergency Preparedness." FDA: "Safe Drug Use After a Natural Disaster." Progressive: "Hurricane Safety."

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