Houston Officials Warn Residents Of Potential Dangers After Harvey

Originally published on September 11, 2017 8:16 pm
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While Florida is just taking stock of the damage from Hurricane Irma, southeast Texas is in the recovery phase after Harvey. In a typical hurricane, this phase may be even more deadly than the storm itself.

Earlier today, I spoke with someone in the thick of it. Francisco Sanchez is with the Emergency Management Department in Harris County, which includes Houston. I asked him about the leading dangers he has seen since the storm.

FRANCISCO SANCHEZ: For us, because this was more of a flooding event than a hurricane, most of that danger came in focus as we urge people to stay out of flooded roadways. We had 33 deaths in Harris County. I think 32 of those were related directly to flooding, one for electrocution.

Now, typically what folks will be seeing in Florida is indeed that most of the dangers there will occur post-landfall. You know, storm surge aside, carbon monoxide poisoning is one of those things, and I think that's something particularly to be watchful for...

SHAPIRO: From running a generator inside the house, generally.

SANCHEZ: Yes, that typically is the cause of that. And because they have so many people without power in Florida, that's going to be a major concern.

SHAPIRO: Given the threat of carbon monoxide that you described, how should a generator be used safely?

SANCHEZ: One, do not put it in the garage. Do not put it in the home, and do not put it by a window. So at least a few feet from the structure is your safest bet. And also try not to keep it running overnight when you might fall asleep. You always want a generator running when you can keep your eye on it and know that all the safety precautions are in place.

SHAPIRO: And carbon monoxide is odorless. It's not like gasoline fumes that you can tell if it's seeping into the house.

SANCHEZ: And that's why it's particularly dangerous - because you could be putting yourself in a dangerous situation and not even know it. So that's why it's very important to have it outside. And also, it's one of those things - if you've got a generator, much like heavy equipment, if you have not operated one in the past, it's best to rely on a neighbor or a friend or a family member that has one to come and walk you through it to make sure you're doing it safely.

SHAPIRO: When I've covered storms in the past, I've heard people express concerns that as folks go out to check on their flooded homes, they might go check on the roof. And if the roof has taken on a lot of rain, it might not be stable, and there could be injuries or even deaths.

SANCHEZ: Yes. You want to do a damage assessment of your home, but it may not be as it seems. Everything from getting on the roof, trying to go to the attic - if you have seen any kind of significant damage, you always want to make sure those issues are addressed by a professional.

We recognize that it takes a lot of patience to do that. We realize resources are scarce. Contractors are in demand. But recognize that post-landfall and post-hurricane are very dangerous times. And just know that safety should come first.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned that one person in Houston already lost their life due to electrocution. How significant a threat are downed power lines in any of these storms?

SANCHEZ: For us, it was not a major issue because ours for Hurricane Harvey was a flooding event. But downed power lines is going to be a significant issue in Florida. If you see a downed power line, just simply stay away from it and wait for the power companies to get those clear before you venture anywhere near one of those things.

SHAPIRO: Is some of the threat here just mindset, that people are less likely to be reckless and more likely to take precautions when a storm is coming or when they're in a storm and after it's passed, people breathe a sigh of relief and might stop paying attention to the things that could be a real threat?

SANCHEZ: Certainly. I think it's an issue of perception. You see all this buildup about the dangers of the wind and the storm surge and the rain associated with the hurricane. So people have this sigh of relief that once it's over, the dangerous part has passed when statistics tell us it's actually when it's starting to begin. People let their guard down. They're getting close to power lines. They're dealing with heavy equipment.

Also, Florida has a lot of these things that are simply going to make this even more dangerous. The power outages are going to be very significant, so you're going to have downed power lines. So people will be using generators. All the factors that make post-hurricane landfall very dangerous are particularly present post-Irma, so people should be very cautious as the storm passes and they start venturing out.

SHAPIRO: Francisco Sanchez of the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management speaking with us from Houston. Thanks a lot.

SANCHEZ: Thank you, Ari.

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