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Say doc, is the water safe?

Note in the photo from NASA the brown water from Charlotte Harbor blooming out from Charlotte Harbor as it is ejected through Boca Grande pass. The brown water is high in tannin from decaying vegetation. In contrast, some of the Gulf is lighter green than normal due to sediment stirred by Ian from the bottom reflecting light. Go to “Watercolor Seas in the Wake of Hurricane Ian” to slide back and forth between satellite views of the Florida Gulf Coast September 22 and then October 1. 

That is a good question after the storm of the century.  And when might it be safe?

City Water

Everyone who was on Boca after the storm remembers how we all incorporated the new routine of the 5-gallon bucket shuffle. We brought water from a brown pool or the beach to get our toilet bowls to flush. But this only works if there is room in the sewer lines.  How happy we were to get water back, but E. coli bacteria and other bacteria from your gut can be in the water so we boil it for 1-2 minutes to kill any invisible bacteria for a day or two until the water department has tested the water for bacteria and confirmed the water is safe to drink. Until then, we are in a “boil water” notice for a day or two. Washing hands with soap or showering and washing clothes are usually not a problem, and most folks would not get sick from drinking a bit, but it is not worth the risk. 

Flood Water

I saw a fellow wading into waist high water to help someone in a stranded car in an intersection in North Port with an “uh-oh” look on his face as he realized a porta-potty was floating by. When heavy rains and flooding occur, those waters are often contaminated by unfriendly bacteria and sewage exposure you are not aware of. Thirteen million gallons of sewage from the treatment plant in Bradenton spilled into the Manatee River this past August due to heavy rains. That overflow contributed to high bacteria counts along the beaches south that month, including here on Boca.

Where does all that rainwater and contaminated flood water go from central Florida? South my friends, and the Myakka and Peace River gather man-made sewage with agricultural sewage sources along with fertilizer runoff rich with nitrogen and phosphate to feed algae and bacteria and flow into Charlotte Harbor. Flooding has caused increased volume flow rates 16 times normal due to Ian, and that caused the Myakka River to rise above its banks even flooding I-75. Surprisingly so far, the bacteria counts on Boca have been acceptable. 

Beaches

The state routinely measures the water along Florida beaches every two weeks and measures Enterococcus bacteria that are from human feces. They report water conditions as good, moderate, or poor. When conditions are poor and risk of getting an infection in an open wound are increased, the state will issue a beach warning. You can follow these testing results yourself at flordiahealth.gov/ or Google: Florida Healthy Beaches Program. Red Tide current information including actual sampling data and location can be found at myfwc.maps.arcgis.com or google: Red Tide Current Status. Currently we have moderate to high amount in samples 3-5 miles off the Coast west of Stump Pass and south along Little Gasparilla.  After Charlie it took Peace River water quality four months to recover, so we can hope that early next year we can hopefully stabilize.

Flesh eating bacteria

You may also have heard the warning about flesh eating bacteria in Lee County. Vibrio Vulnificus is a bacterium that grows in salty warm water along the sea floor and currently is thriving, causing a spike in infections. The state of Florida normal sees an average of 20-30 cases of Vibrio illness a year, with 5-10 deaths. Since Ian, Lee County has had 28 cases and 6 deaths. Like all bacteria that can cause cellulitis (an infection of the skin that enters through a wound or cut) it can take advantage of humans with a weakened immune system and begin to grow deeper under the skin and spread into your bloodstream.

People over 65 or with diabetes, obesity, or on immune suppressing drugs are more likely to be a target for bacterial infections. Deep infections under the skin can spread fast because bacteria can double every 5-20 minutes.  Some patients can go from a tender red wound to serious or even life and limb threatening infection in 8-12 hours. If a cut or wound especially on a foot or leg starts to become more red and painful, you should be seen immediately by your doctor and consider antibiotics if infection is developing.

Vibrio has been around a long time, and we know it also can sometimes cause illness in humans who eat raw or undercooked shellfish such as oysters. For most, it is a mild illness if ingested, but if someone has an open wound and weakened immune system, I recommend staying out of the warm water of the bay and gulf right now and instead wear shoes and enjoy a walk on the beach. The pool is much safer, as long as it has been checked for roofing nails!

How to bathe after the storm of the century

Three days after Ian none of us had bathed, and some of us (me) were smelling a bit “ripe,” so a few took advantage of the deserted beach to bathe as the sunset. It looked quite inviting until my mind began to process the risk/benefit ratio, and my wife said, “Don’t even think about it.” 

I decided instead to bathe in my hot tub I had been prepping for such a purpose. The day after Ian passed, I had pulled part of the roof out and scooped up the leaves and debris and dumped all the pool shock I possessed into it. After three days it was kind of blueish green with a haze of cloudy debris and probably dead bacteria and algae forming a murky layer along the bottom.  Not until I eased into the cold water that next morning at 5 a.m. in the dark, naked did I let out a shriek as I stepped on a roofing nail hidden in the murky bottom layer. I pulled hundreds of nails, screws, and staples out of the pool and hot tub over the next few weeks. Another unforeseen danger. Thus began the next chapter: recovery.

How to deal with the mental stress of this disaster and recovery

The Florida Department of Health and Florida Department of Children and Families have partnered with BetterHelp to offer three months of free mental health services via online therapy to those impacted by Hurricane Ian. To access these free services, visit betterhelp.com/voucher and enter code: HurricaneIan.

Do not feel alone or try to bottle up your feelings. Talk about how you feel and share your feelings with others, and we will all help each other recover. It is a slow, difficult, emotional process but together, our community with recover. Already I see green buds on the trees, and the birds and butterflies are back, and the dolphin are feeding along the beach. 

About the Author

Dr. James joined the Clinic in March 2018 and serves as Medical Director of the Clinic. A graduate of Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine, he completed his residency at Metropolitan Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is board certified in emergency medicine and has been awarded fellowship status by the American College of […]

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  • That is a good question after the storm of the century.  And when might it be safe? City Water Everyone who was on Boca after the storm remembers how we all incorporated the new routine of the 5-gallon bucket shuffle. We brought water from a brown pool or the beach to get our toilet bowls […]