On a day like Wednesday, when the New Orleans area was pounded with as much as seven inches of rain in less than three hours, it may seem like the only way past floodwater is through it. However, experts warn that wading — and especially swimming — through a flood could expose people to a stew of toxic waste and chemicals.
One video making the rounds on social media showed someone swimming through several feet of water near Canal Street.
“That is crazy,” said Tiong Aw, a public health microbiologist at Tulane University. “It can be dangerous and can make humans susceptible to infectious diseases and injuries.”
Other experts agreed, noting all manner of potential hazards.
“If you’re neighboring a rural area, human and livestock waste can get into the floodwater, which can be toxic to humans,” said D.J. Sprenger, a member of Team Rubicon, a disaster response team that provides rescue and resources to areas all over the country.
“If a residential area is flooded, medical supplies or cleaning agents can be in the water. Wild or stray animals like water snakes or rodents could be swimming in the water,” Sprenger said. “Floodwater can contain downed power lines, and the water current could be charged after a storm.”
After Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, the Louisiana Department of Health and New Orleans Public Response Team identified 869 cases of potential infectious disease in the weeks immediately afterward and 18 cases of Vibrio skin infections. Vibrio bacteria live in coastal waters and are more active from May through October. Five of those 18 patients died.
One 60-year-old man arrived at a hospital with ankle wounds and diarrhea after wading through floodwater in New Orleans for three days. Vibrio vulnificus was found in his blood, and he died the next day. That particular type of bacteria is known to cause necrotizing fasciitis, a gruesome condition commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria.
Fortunately, Wednesday’s flood seemed to be freshwater, said experts, and Vibrio only grows in brackish water.
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