Beware of hazards caused by hurricanes

By Debra Coyle

ers and left 30 people dead, countless homeless, and caused millions of dollars in damage.

According to the New Jersey Department of Education, 67 schools were temporarily closed as a result of damage from Ida with 72% being located in the state’s Schools Development Authority (SDA) districts serving our most vulnerable students in underserved communities. Damage to schools included extreme building flooding resulting in several feet of water and damage to asbestos flooring, boilers, air conditioning and mechanical systems, roofs, and walls.

The climate crisis is causing more frequent extreme weather events from wildfires to hurricanes and extreme temperatures. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, flooding is the nation’s most common natural disaster.

Common hazards in schools

While hurricanes alone can affect schools, they can also exacerbate existing conditions and hazards such as mold, sewage and harmful chemicals. 


Mold is the primary problem, but it is not the only hazard. Flood waters are likely to contain toxic chemicals and harmful bacteria, especially if flooding came from polluted rivers or bays or if there are nearby industrial sites. Underground industrial waste or storage sites and sewage treatment plants in the area could present hazards if they lost power or overflowed in the storm.

If the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system was submerged in flood waters, there may be a lot of dirt and debris as well as bacteria and mold. Schools should not run the HVAC system if staff know or suspect that it is contaminated, and staff should not clean it. Rather, the district must ensure that contaminated HVAC systems are professionally cleaned and repaired.

Health effects

Molds produce and release millions of spores small enough to be airborne. Although some people are not affected by mold, the spores of some molds can cause a wide range of respiratory effects, including allergies, asthma development and exacerbation, respiratory infections, and bronchitis. Both asthma and bronchitis may have symptoms of shortness of breath, wheezing (sounds on exhalation) and coughing. People with asthma or sinusitis, those already allergic to mold or have compromised immune systems are most at risk, but other people can develop allergies or asthma and suffer other effects. In addition, mold may cause eye and skin irritation.

Safe removal

The objective of safe mold removal is to prevent the release of spores, so workers and other building occupants don’t inhale them, and to avoid skin and eye contact with mold. Killing mold, as with bleach, is not enough, because even dead spores are allergenic. Nonporous materials, such as glass or metal, can be cleaned with a bleach solution.

When can staff be involved in mold remediation?

Large amounts of mold require professional remediation, involving enclosures and extensive personal protective equipment (PPE), much like an asbestos removal. If aggressive techniques must be used, such as pulling up damaged linoleum tile, the job should be treated like a large removal. However, staff may be involved in nonaggressive removal of small amounts of moldy material (less than 100 square feet). 

Sewage and harmful chemicals

Limit contact with flood water. Flood water may have high levels of raw sewage, other hazardous substances or infectious organisms, including intestinal bacteria, hepatitis A virus, and agents of typhoid. Early symptoms from exposure to contaminated flood water may include upset stomach, intestinal problems, headache and other flu-like discomfort. Anyone experiencing these and any other problems should immediately seek medical attention.

Floodwater often contains tetanus. Tetanus can be acquired from contaminated soil or water entering broken areas of the skin, such as cuts, abrasions or puncture wounds. Before working in flooded areas, be sure your tetanus shot is current (given within the last five years). Have flood-caused wounds evaluated for risk.

If you know or suspect toxic or caustic chemicals are present, use chemical PPE (see below). Professional help may be needed for damaged asbestos-containing materials (pipe insulation and linoleum floor tiles) or lead (damaged lead paint).

Protect yourself with personal protective equipment

The Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) program standard requires that school districts provide hazard-appropriate PPE, and provide fit-testing, worker training, PPE maintenance and disposal of contaminated PPE. Local associations leaders should talk with their UniServ field reps to ensure this happens and check the contract for other health and safety language.

Use good hygiene for all floodwater hazards. Wash your hands and nails with soap and clean, running water, especially before work breaks, and meal breaks; at the end of the work shift, wash hands, hair and scalp. After working, properly dispose of disposable work clothes, or put reusable items in plastic bags for laundering. Do not keep food or beverages in the work area. 

Debra Coyle is the executive director of the NJ Work Environment Council (WEC). WEC is the state affiliate of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. Coyle can be reached at

What local associations can do

Exercise your right to participate in the process of deciding how federal infrastructure funds are spent to repair and upgrade schools.

Form a health and safety committee if you don’t already have one and identify and document instances of recurring moisture problems, and then work with building-level facilities personnel to ensure timely and thorough resolution.

Ensure custodians have proper training on cleanup procedures and PPE. 

Perform mold walk-throughs and survey staff for health problems using the applicable NJEA checklists. Locals should then bring all problems to district administration and work with their UniServ representative to ensure that the district resolves them.

Develop a response to the suspected presence of mold that includes these actions: identify and document problems; identify affected staff and students; inform staff, parents, and other allies; and mobilize and take collective action. 


NJEA health and safety article

“A damp NJ spells mold in schools”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 

“Mold Prevention Strategies and Possible Health Effects in the Aftermath of Hurricanes and Major Floods,” 2006 

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Floods Page 

NIOSH Interim Recommendations for the Cleaning and Remediation of Flood-Contaminated HVAC Systems

“A Guide for Building Owners and Managers,” 2010