Texans face a ‘triple threat’ from insects, mold, and bacteria in Harvey’s wake

Tropical Storm Harvey may be on the move – but its after-effects are just beginning to be realized.

In under a week, the storm unleashed as much as 51 inches of water in some areas, causing catastrophic flooding that displaced 33,000 Texans. At least 41 people have died since the storm began, and officials expect the toll to rise.

People in flooded areas quickly found themselves face-to-face with a range of health problems, including contaminated floodwaters and the threat of injury.

Although the skies have begun to clear, the problems are far from over. See what people in affected areas are up against for the next several months:


Mosquitoes gather near standing floodwaters, spreading infection.

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CDC/James Gathany

While the storm wiped out mosquitoes from the area for now, the standing water left over from the flooding and the warm temperatures will make parts of Texas particularly prone to mosquitoes and the diseases they can carry in the coming months and year.

“As the floodwaters recede, you’re left with pockets of water which are good for breeding both Culex mosquitoes and Aedes mosquitoes,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told The Atlantic. That could lead to more West Nile infections, and possibly Zika. Texas has seen some local transmission of Zika in Brownsville, Texas near the Mexico border.


Chemical plants sent offline by the storm explode or burn, releasing harmful pollutants.

Explosions rocked the outskirts of Houston on Thursday at the Arkema chemical plant after flooding shut down its power and backup generators, which had been keeping explosive compounds cool via a refrigeration system.

When the refrigerators went offline, the compounds got warm and exploded. Officials said they plan to let the fire burn out, meaning more blasts are likely. But Arkema is just one of hundreds of chemical plants in the Houston area, many of which have been flooded and are now at risk of further damage.


Shuttered oil refineries release toxic chemicals as a stop-gap disposal method.

In addition to slamming homes and hospitals, Harvey struck the heart of Texas’ refining industry, where roughly a third of America’s oil is processed. In anticipation of the storm, dozens of processing facilities were forced to intentionally burn chemicals as a means of disposing them, releasing millions of pounds of pollutants into the air.

Chevron Phillips, the company that reported the largest release, burned close to 800,000 pounds of chemicals – nearly 300,000 of which were the colorless, odorless, and potentially deadly gas carbon monoxide – as it shut down its plant to prepare for the storm.


Dangerous bacteria get swept up in floodwaters, potentially causing infections.

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Skin lesions caused by Vibrio vulnificus bacteria after Hurricane Katrina.
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CDC

Floodwaters act as sponges for hazardous materials. As they bubble past city streets and inundate cars and homes, the waters collect sharp objects, sweep up bacteria, and gather human waste.

That combination is a “triple threat” for potential infections, Rachel Noble, a professor of marine biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Business Insider. While flooded plumbing systems can expose people to fecal bacteria, salty ocean water from the Gulf can introduce them to marine bacteria. Finally, floating pieces of metal and glass from destroyed homes and buildings can cut people’s skin, increasing the chances of infection.

Noble advised people who have had contact with floodwaters to pay close attention to any open wounds and look out for lesions that get “hot and angry,” or red and raised.


Moist urban environments encourage the growth of mold and other dangerous microbial life.

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/satemkemet/4370813521

Wet environments in houses and buildings are ideal conditions for mold to grow. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, close to half of all inspected homes had visible mold, according to the CDC. Mold after Katrina was connected to the deaths of four people who worked in a university building that had been damaged by the storm.

Not everyone is sensitive to mold, but for those who are, and for those who are allergic to it, the reactions can be severe, causing stuffiness in the nose, throat irritation, coughing, and sometimes infections in the lungs, according to the CDC.


Insects, snakes, and wild animals can be drawn out by the water.

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Twitter/Mike_Hixenbaugh?

Yet another risk in flooded areas is wildlife, as snakes, insects, and other wild animals can be drawn to the water or swept up in it.

“Storm activity definitely increases the potential for snakebite as the snakes get flooded out and seek higher ground,” Bryan Fry, an expert on venomous snakes at the University of Queensland in Australia, told The Washington Post.

In Harvey’s wake, colonies of fire ants joined together to form floating rafts in an attempt to escape floodwaters. While their stings aren’t generally dangerous to people (except for those allergic) multiple stings from an entire colony could cause problems.


With tens of thousands of people displaced and in shelters, infectious diseases could spread.

Because of crowding at shelters and a lack of resources, diseases could spread much easier than they might usually. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, there wasn’t much access to clean food and water, which led to an E. coli outbreak.

Harvey’s path also could lend itself to more infectious diseases, especially with people packed together in convention-center-sizes spaces. “We don’t realize that the Gulf Coast is America’s vulnerable underbelly of infectious disease,” Hotez told the Washington Post.


For those who have chronic conditions like diabetes, access to medication can be a problem felt for weeks after the flooding.

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Beawiharta Beawiharta/Reuters

Getting access to medication for a chronic condition can be difficult in the wake of a disaster like Harvey. In Houston, insulin, a drug used by people with diabetes, was in demand during the storm. The FDA sent out recommendations about how to cope with the shortages.

People displaced by the storm who have chronic conditions may also more frequently end up in the hospital or emergency room, something that happened after Katrina.

The lack of access to chronic medications could have a lasting impact. After Hurricane Iniki hit Hawaii in 1992, there was an increase in the death rate among people who had diabetes, even though the overall death rate had not changed.


Harvey could take a toll on the mental health of those affected.

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Getty Images

The CDC advised that people should “be prepared to cope with feelings of fear, grief and depression after a traumatic event.” A 2012 study of 392 low-income parents after Katrina found that the prevalence of mental illness doubled, and almost half had signs of post traumatic stress disorder.