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Keep Your Food, Water and Home Safe after a Hurricane

It’s been four days since Hurricane Sandy burst into the northeast, causing heartache and difficulty for so many across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Many are going on to five days without power — and, for some, without water too. It could be days before these basic services are restored. In the hardest hit areas, it could be weeks or longer. If you are in an effected area, please stay safe this weekend.

I received an email from the NSF International, a nonprofit public health and safety organization, this morning with tips on how to keep water and food safe. Though I don’t usually run information straight from an email like this, the damage wrought by Sandy made me want to this time.

These tips come directly from  NSF International Public Safety Officer, Cheryl Luptowski.

Water Safety

Methods of Purifying Water

Both public and private water supplies can be compromised during extensive flooding. If you aren’t sure about the quality of your water supply, don’t drink it. There are several ways to purify water that may have been contaminated or comes from a questionable source:

  • Boiling water – Will destroy most bacteria, cysts and viruses. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends boiling drinking water for a minimum of two to three minutes at a good rolling boil.
  • Liquid (not granular) household bleach – Should be free of additives or scents and contain a hypochlorite solution of at least 5.25 percent. The American Red Cross recommends adding 16 drops of bleach per gallon of water and letting the water stand for at least 30 minutes. If the water doesn’t have a slight bleach odor, repeat the dosage and let stand another 15 minutes. A filter certified for chlorine reduction can be used to reduce excess chlorine.
  • Purification tablets – If you have them in your emergency kit, be sure to follow the directions on the package. Chemical disinfectants are generally effective against most forms of bacteria and viruses, but may not kill intestinal parasites (cysts), so boiling or filtering for cysts may still be needed.

Food Safety

Determining if food in the refrigerator or freezer is still safe

  • Perishable foods such as meat, milk and eggs need to be kept refrigerated at or below 40ºF.
  • Frozen foods need to be kept at or below 0ºF. If the power is out, keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. The average refrigerator can usually keep food safely cold for about 4 hours if left unopened. A freezer may hold a safe temperature for 24 – 48 hours depending upon its fullness.
  • Placing dry or block ice in the freezer or refrigerator can help keep foods cold for a longer period.
  • Keep appliance thermometers in the refrigerator and freezer to help determine if food is being kept at the correct temperature. Certified food thermometers can be used to check the temperature of individual food items to make sure they haven’t exceeded 40ºF.

Refreezing food

  • Food can usually be refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or if the internal temperature is 40ºF or below.
  • Discard any items in the freezer or the refrigerator that have come into contact with raw meat juices.
  • Partial thawing and refreezing may reduce the quality of some food, but the food will remain safe to eat provided the internal temperature of the food item hasn’t exceeded 40ºF for more than two hours.

What to keep and what to throw out after a flood

  • Discard all food that came in contact with flood waters, including canned goods.
  • Discard wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers as there is no way to safely clean and sanitize them.
  • Dishes and cookware that are heat resistant can be washed in a certified dishwasher on the sanitizing cycle or washed by hand and dipped in a 50 ppm bleach solution.

Telling if food is safe by sight or smell

  • Don’t rely on appearance or odor to determine if a food product is safe — most disease-causing organisms cannot be detected in this manner.
  • Watch food temperatures closely and discard any perishable food that has been above 40ºF for two hours or more (one hour on >90ºF days).

When in Doubt, Throw It Out: Although some may advise that some canned foods may be salvageable, it’s best not to take chances – just throw them away.

Sanitizing Your Home

  • When surfaces in homes are exposed to flood waters, fire or other potentially harmful residues, they need to be properly cleaned and sanitized. To avoid pushing dirt or bacteria further into your home, always start the cleaning process where food is prepared and work outward into the rest of the home.
  • Surfaces should first be rinsed to remove visible dirt residue, then washed with a mixture of hot water and detergent. After cleaning, rinse the surface with clean, potable water and allow to dry. Sanitizing can be accomplished using a bleach/water mixture or other sanitizing agent specifically formulated to kill germs and bacteria.