Dramatic flooding in northeastern Minnesota has caused remarkably few health emergencies. There have been no reports of deaths or serious injuries caused by the flooding. Hospitals continue to operate throughout the crisis and most people have been able to remain in their homes.
Despite the lack of injury, there are still plenty of health risks facing the people who live in the ever-expanding flood zone.
One of the more significant risks for flood victims is the safety of their drinking water. Officials are monitoring the situation in all communities affected by the flooding. Today, the city of Willow River issued a precautionary boil order based on localized flooding around the city's water system.
Karla Peterson, who oversees the Community Public Water Supply Unit at the Minnesota Department of Health, said it is possible that Willow River's drinking water has not been contaminated by the flooding. But no one knows for sure yet and until water tests rule out any problems, Peterson said residents should treat the water in their taps as if it is contaminated.
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"If they don't boil the water, they cannot drink the water. They can use bottled water or find an alternative source," Peterson said. "But definitely they do have to boil it, if they're going to drink it."
The boil order does not apply to water that is used for bathing or other purposes.
It's unclear when Willow River's drinking water restriction will be lifted, but Peterson hopes it will be removed within days. The situation will likely take much longer in the low-lying community of Thomson where residents of the mostly-evacuated town have been ordered not to use their water at all.
People with private wells are also urged to take precautions. Private wells that have been submerged by floodwaters must be flushed, disinfected and tested before they can be used safely again, according to the Health Department. Homeowners are advised to test their water if floodwaters come within 50 feet of their wells.
Contaminated food is also a concern.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture advises farmers and gardeners not to try and salvage any produce.
Contamination from E. coli bacteria in raw sewage is the main worry with foods that have been exposed to floodwaters. It is also possible that fruit and vegetables could absorb high amounts of pesticides or petroleum products in the water.
Heidi Kassenborg directs the Dairy and Food Inspection Division. She said strawberries and blueberries should not be eaten if they've been submerged in floodwater, nor should vegetables that are in season.
"Leafy greens, peas, those types of products, if they've been contacted with floodwater, because of the risk of contamination in that floodwater. They should discard those products.," Kassenborg said.
She said there haven't been any significant food-contamination problems reported by grocery stores or food-production facilities.
Most restaurants are also doing OK. The situation in Duluth is actually quite a bit better than expected, said Health Department supervisor April Bogard. Only about a half-dozen restaurants there have been affected by floodwaters. In Proctor, another five or six restaurants have flood damage. It's not clear yet how restaurants in Moose Lake and Willow River have been affected.
Bogard said Health Department inspectors have been busy helping restaurants figure out what they can keep and what must be discarded.
"Some of the food that's in sealed containers like cans can be salvaged even if it was in contact with floodwaters, but anything with a screw top would need to be thrown away," Bogard said. "Any foods that were open in walk-in coolers, if they got flooded, obviously all of that needs to be thrown away."
The same food-safety guidelines apply to homeowners. In addition, Health Department spokesman Buddy Ferguson says parents should not let their kids play in flood waters. And they should search their property for any toys that might have gotten soaked.
"Anything that's a soft toy that might have absorbed floodwater, unfortunately you probably just need to throw that out," Ferguson said. "Hard-surface toys you can clean them off with a solution made with two teaspoons of bleach and a gallon of water and then you may be able to keep those."
Homeowners who might have potential mold problems due to the flooding face extra challenges. The Health Department has posted instructions for dealing with mold issues on its website.
Map: Minnesota communities not in the National Flood Insurance Program