June 2008 floods left behind few long-term health problems

Respiratory, mental health ailments most common, officials say

Local physicians and health officials say they saw a spike of injuries and illnesses in the months after the June 2008 floods but few long-term, flood-related health impacts.

Respiratory and mental health ailments accounted for much of the caseload increase, they said.

Dr. Ryan Sundermann, director of St. Luke’s Hospital’s emergency department, said the number of patients treated nearly doubled in the weeks after the flood from the normal range of 150 to 160 per day to a range of 275 to 285 during the peak.

That increase, he said, was largely attributable to the number of people engaged in cleanup and the temporary flood-caused shutdown of emergency treatment at Mercy Medical Center.

Dr. Donald Paynter, a critical care physician at St. Luke’s Hospital, said he and fellow pulmonologists in the months after the flood experienced an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent increase in respiratory ailments related to exposure to mold and dust and working in humid environments during cleanup efforts.

People who had never before complained of respiratory problems were affected as well as people whose existing conditions were aggravated by exposure to irritants and pushing themselves beyond healthy limits, he said.

“I can’t say that I have more patients now with long-lasting effects related to their exposure,” he said.

Dr. Gina Perri, a family medicine specialist who practices at Mercy Medical Center’s Hiawatha clinic, said she saw an increase in patients suffering from anxiety and depression after the flood.

People who were displaced by the flood had to deal with feelings of grief, loss and adjustment to major changes, which were often amplified by adverse financial conditions, she said.

“Most of it was acute, in the first six to nine months after the flood,” she said. “People did a good job of adjusting to it.”

St. Luke’s Hospital also recorded a post-flood increase in treatment of mental health patients.

In 2008, St. Luke’s behavioral health discharges totaled 3,171, up just 5 from the preceding year. That number increased to 3,377 in 2009 and to 3,406 in 2010, before falling to 3,222 in 2011 and falling farther to 2,901 in 2012.

Though it’s impossible to quantify, lives may have been shortened by the physical and emotional stress experienced by many flood victims, according to Dr. Paynter, who said he treated “a handful” of patients whose pre-existing conditions were severely aggravated by exposure to the flood.

“It was a horribly stressful time. I had people crying in my office – people who did not have the resources to deal with what they were going through,” he said.

“Their ability to compensate for (pre-existing) physical ailments was compromised by additional physical and emotional stress,” he said.

Linn County residents avoided almost all the public health threats generally associated with catastrophic floods, said Linn County Public Health Director Primod Dwivedi.

Untreated sewage in the floodwater never resulted in outbreaks caused by food-borne or water-bone pathogens, Dwivedi said.

The volunteer sandbagging effort that saved Cedar Rapids’ last water well from contamination probably did more than any other single event to protect residents’ health, Dwivedi said.

“Losing that last well would have been a sanitation disaster,” he said.

The widespread presence of mold, mildew and dust caused a spike in respiratory ailments that could have been a lot worse if the health department had been less diligent in distributing respirator masks to residents engaged in mucking out and demolishing flooded buildings, Dwivedi said.

“Our staff went door to door to distribute respirator masks,” he said, adding that the department distributed “close to 100,000 of them.”

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