Public Health Emergency Declared in Storm's Aftermath

Shopping carts full of contaminated food damaged by Hurricane Sandy in New York City. (Photo courtesy ThinkProgress.)

Public Health Emergency Declared in Storm's Aftermath

Post-Sandy hazards include 'toxic stew' of floodwater, food borne illness

Although the winds have calmed and the pelting rains have ceded to sunny skies, public health officials in New York City warned Thursday that the threat from Hurricane Sandy remains very real.

On Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declared a public health emergency for New York, and deployed teams of medical professionals from around the country to assist hurricane victims in New York and New Jersey.

The emergency declaration allows the government to relax certain rules to ensure continuous care throughout a crisis.

Hurricane Sandy has so far been blamed for more than 70 deaths in the US -- including 24 in New York City, 8 in New Jersey and 4 in Connecticut. But James Barron of The New York Timesreported Wednesday that "the death toll seemed certain to rise as rescuers checked basements that had flooded, trapping homeowners inside."

Public health officials remain concerned about other hazards that follow an emergency such as Hurricane Sandy, including contaminated flood waters, unsafe drinking water, compromised sewage treatment plants and mold growing in flooded homes.

Overnight Wednesday, much of Lower Manhattan remained without power, along with sections of Brooklyn, Queens and most of Long Island, according to the Times prompting additional concerns about food poisoning and carbon monoxide poisoning from unsafe use of generators to provide heat.

But perhaps the greatest threat in the wake of the storm fill the streets, subways, basements and every other area it could wash into: the "toxic stew" of floodwaters that New Jersey state epidemiologist Tina Tan told NPR's Rob Stein could potentially contain any chemical stored in a garage or basement.

While the floodwaters run throughout the city this week, two neighborhoods in particular are concerned about their proximity to Superfund cleanup sites.

John Lipscomb of the clean water advocacy group Riverkeeper said he worries most about the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, which abuts a 1.8-mile canal that was recently designated a Superfund cleanup site by the US Environmental Protection Agency after years of industrial pollution and sewage discharges.

On Tuesday, City Councilmember Brad Lunder sent an email to his constituents in the area, the Huffington Post reported, warning them, "If you live near the canal, do not touch standing water in the area, or any sediment or debris left by Gowanus flood-waters. After the storm, the EPA and DEP are committed to work together to conduct any sampling needed to address potential issues of toxicity created by the flooding."

However, much of that constituency had no internet, and had already headed into the streets before reading the warning.

The city's other Superfund site, Newtown Creek, is a waterway that forms the border between Brooklyn and Queens.

Richard Platzman, 30, owns a condominium just blocks from the creek in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. While his building wasn't affected, he said, some of his neighbors had been hard hit.

"The fact is that waste from all these industries--metal-working, pencil manufacturing, everything--all this stuff is going to rise up into the dirt, basements, everywhere," he told Huffington Post.

But one much-hyped threat may prove to be more of a Halloween tale than anything else. On Wednesday, the Huffington Postsuggested that millions of potentially plague-borne rats rising from the subways could transmit disease such as hantavirus and typhus.

Bruce Upbin, however, of Forbes reports that MTA workers in the East River tunnel "denied seeing any exodus" of rodents.

"The waters likely rushed into tunnels and crevices so fast that the rats had no time to escape and many of them died," Upbin writes.

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