Strategy in the Aftermath: How Local Governments Can Protect Citizens and Emergency Responders from Toxins After Natural Disasters

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NCDOT Twitter Florence(9/17/2018)

Significant rainfall and historical flooding continue along the East coast following Hurricane Florence. According to the National Weather Service, Wilmington, North Carolina (a port city impacted by Florence), has recorded 86.79″ of rain in 2018. The previous rainfall record was set in 1877 at 83.65″. Access to the city was difficult and dangerous following the storm due to road closures and flooding.

North Carolina Governor, Roy Cooper, told media during a press conference on Monday, September 17 that more than 900 people were rescued from rising floodwaters and 15,000 remained in shelters in the state.

More than 641,000 homes and businesses were without electricity in North and South Carolina and surrounding states, down from a peak of nearly 1 million. (Reuters)

Although the storm was downgraded to a tropical depression when it moved inland, threats and damages continue to rise due to flooding and storm surges. Officials warn residents that rivers have yet to crest.

Risks do not end when the skies clear; in this article, our friends at OnSolve discuss growing threats after a natural disaster.


Climate change is a growing threat for national and local governments alike.

Entire communities can be devastated by extreme weather events, including hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires, each of which are exacerbated by climate change. While natural disasters themselves are a main concern for government agencies, the public may still be at risk long after a storm has passed. Debris and toxic materials can linger in the aftermath, posing potential health hazards for communities as they attempt to rebuild.

For government agencies, this means placing more focus on preparedness and response and addressing the safety of residents and staff during the recovery phase. During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, for example, the death toll continued rising even after the storm had passed. To prevent additional injuries, emergency officials must be aware of any hazards that exist in the wake of these disasters and inform the public accordingly.

In previous decades, homes, workplaces, and businesses were not constructed to the same public health standards currently in place today. More recently, several popular materials and additives once used during the construction process have been classified as hazardous and fallen out of favor, including asbestos and lead. Unfortunately, unless the structure was renovated and these hazards were specifically removed, it’s likely they’re still present in some form in older buildings. Lead and asbestos were both used in a multitude of construction materials, and there is a significant cause for concern if anyone is accidentally exposed to these toxins. Lead damages many bodily systems and asbestos fibers are linked to cancerous tumors in the lining around organs. Products such as vinyl flooring, building insulation, roof tiles, and even adhesives may contain variable amounts of asbestos, while lead can be found in paint chips, dust, and metal pipes.

While lead and asbestos-containing materials can remain safely intact when left alone, a natural disaster will likely disrupt these toxins and increase opportunities for exposure. It may be difficult for the untrained eye to identify potentially toxic materials, even under normal circumstances. For professionals or individuals who may be aware of hazards in older homes, any dangerous materials are likely to be fragmented and unrecognizable after a natural disaster has passed through. In either case the public may unknowingly inhale microscopic lead or asbestos particles, possibly resulting in severe health repercussions decades later.

The issue of toxin exposure has been exemplified in recent years by several natural disasters in the United States. Concerns were raised after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 about potential asbestos exposure as affected communities were dealing with debris and rebuilding. Following California’s wildfires last year, multiple state departments cautioned residents about toxins that could be found in the ash and debris. Without announcements and awareness from local governments and the media, the public could have been put at greater risk while performing cleanup efforts.

The prevalence of natural disasters makes it necessary for government agencies to be prepared by having all the appropriate plans and systems in place. This includes emergency communications, both during and after a natural disaster. The CodeRED from OnSolve platform can help communities get back on their feet by providing an efficient means of communication between the government, the media, and the public.

This blog was written in conjunction with Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center with the goal to create additional awareness and education on the risks of asbestos exposure.


Firestorm is pleased to collaborate with OnSolve to present a no-fee webinar series. This series reviews how an organization can address acts of violence and identify threats before they become reality. These webinars will provide detail on how workplace violence affects business continuity and how leaders must plan.  Join us to learn about how your organization can prepare for crisis and risk.

October 10thPredictive Insights: Looking for Clues in Advance of the Next Active Shooting Event

November 14thAnticipating the Known and Unknown: Planning for Your Next Crisis

December 12th Performing in the Darkest Hour: Responding to an Act of Violence in Your Organization

December 18th (Virtual Exercise Simulation)Testing Your Deadly Weapons Response Plan: A Firestorm and OnSolve Virtual Exercise

Firestorm and OnSolve webinar graphic

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