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Study Looks At Health Effects Of 2014 Flood

Carol Myers

  Researchers at the University of West Florida are out with a first-of-its-kind study, assessing the health effects of the major flood that hit the Pensacola area in 2014. 

The Health Impact Assessment (HIA)  also involved the Florida Department of Health, and was funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“The Health Impact Assessment framework is relatively new in the world of public health, and in Florida there haven’t been very many HIAs done, especially by the state Health Department,” said Chris DuClos, program manager at the Florida Department of Health.

The assessment covers the historic flooding that took place in Escambia County from April 28 to May 3, 2014 – with the data compared to a similar, but nondescript, period in 2008. 

“The flooding event, of course, was kind of extreme, and we were just looking for a way to kind of characterize the impacts on the environment, and the extreme rainfall that occurred there,” said DuClos. “We were aware of prior media coverage on that event and that’s what led us to try this HIA framework on that particular flooding event.”

Jason Ortegren, an associate professor in the UWF Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, led the team which included graduate students Rebecca Foglietti and Talia Smith. Ortegren says the Department of Health listed some environmental variables and health outcomes likely related to the floods. 

“Those included respiratory-related illnesses, because of things like standing water, potentially mold, things like this,” said Ortegren. “As well as the more immediate impacts like injuries or deaths from drowning.”

The report did show that, countywide, there were increases in the proportion of both “injury- and respiratory-related hospitalizations and ER visits during the flooding period. The state Health Department’s Chris DuClos says ZIP codes were used to compile the overall data, which he calls “mixed.” 

A number of policy recommendations also resulted, such as the raising of electric panels on sewage lift stations above the flood elevation level to keep them operational in extreme rainfall. Another recommendation from the CDC deals with cleanup. 

“Things like using personal protective equipment [and] being extremely careful during cleanup activities not to become injured,” said DuClos. “And we wanted to make sure that the waste disposal of construction and demolition debris was done in the best way possible.”

UWF’s Jason Ortegren says one obstacle to be overcome was a lack of data from the flooding period. Part of the reason is because at the time of the flood, first response was the first order of business. 

“One of the suggestions at the end of the report is: if we can populate the emergency response sufficiently, that we could dedicate a small team to scientific sampling during the event,” Ortegren said. “Then we could potentially have actual data to look back on.” 

But Ortegren concedes that the study did not unveil any smoking gun of what led to major health issues from the flood and how they can be addressed directly. But he adds that they learned some things, and other things were confirmed.

“Like, the majority of injuries seem to be related to vehicle use during periods of intense rainfall and flooding,” Ortegren said. “So that a public awareness system saying ‘Just don’t drive anywhere [and] you’ll be better off,’ might help reduce these impacts.” 

More information about the UWF Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences is available at www.uwf.edu/environmental.