As flood waters recede, danger levels increase for farmers/ranchers

March 26, 2019

Image with caption: Some of the flood devastation in Nebraska is obvious from this aerial photograph of farm property between Fremont and Omaha. (Photo by Zach Duysen)

Some of the flood devastation in Nebraska is obvious from this aerial photograph of farm property between Fremont and Omaha. (Photo by Zach Duysen)

Even after the flood waters in Nebraska and Iowa recede, multiple and serious dangers from major flooding will remain.
To assist farm and ranch families with safe flood recovery, members of the Central States Center of Agricultural Safety and Health (CS-CASH) at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health collaborated with the AgriSafe Network to create an on-demand webinar that provides information on farm flood hazards and safe methods of clean-up and recovery.
The webinar can be viewed at:
Major safety concerns related to any post-flood event include:
  • Chemicals released from barns, homes and other on-farm sources and businesses. The chemicals may be found in water or in the form of vapor or fumes. Local authorities can assist with handling chemical spills.
  • Contaminated well water.
  • Human and animal communicable disease. Water-borne (hepatitis A), vector-borne (West Nile virus), bacterial (tetanus), and fungal (histoplasmosis) spores found in dust, dirt, animal droppings and animal carcasses are among the disease threats related to flood waters.
  • Mold, which is part of our natural environment, can be present in high concentrations and occur in unusual areas where flood waters resulted in wet buildings or materials not typically exposed to water. This can result in production of microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOCs), which emit chemical-like odors and can become noxious respiratory irritants.
  • In dealing with the extra stress created by conditions left behind from a major flood, anxiety and fatigue levels can become overwhelming, leading to major depression, generalized anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder.
"Contaminated well water from exposure to bacteria, sewage, gas or oil, agricultural or industrial waste, chemicals and other substances can cause serious illness," said Bruce Dvorak, Ph.D., professor, civil engineering, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  
"All wells should be checked by a professional testing laboratory before using as a water source. Even if municipal water sources are deemed to be safe for drinking, each individual well must be tested before use."
Linda Emanuel, community health nurse for AgriSafe, stressed the importance of using appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) during cleanup.
Because major flooding such as that seen in Nebraska can result in serious increases in bacterial and fungal populations and high levels of mold, it’s critical to wear safety goggles and N95 (or greater) respirators that fit your face and are approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Waterproof, cut-resistant gloves also are key to working safely, Emanuel said, and people should always work in a properly ventilated area.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides recommendations regarding the proper PPE to wear when entering a home or building that contains mold. This information is found at
If there’s suspicion that chemicals have contaminated any part of the work area, she said it’s important to wear coveralls, liquid and chemical resistant boots or waders, gloves and safety glasses. NIOSH- approved respirators - such as chemical cartridge respirators for organic vapors with an added pre-filter - also are key to protecting yourself from chemical exposure.
Products such as hay bales, especially those that are wrapped, and wet grain in bins can harbor large volumes of dangerous mold, Emanuel said.
Chad Roy, Ph.D., director of infectious disease aerobiology at the Tulane National Primate Research Center, said cooler temperatures during the Nebraska and Iowa flooding events will help subdue microbiological growth, but the level of microbial growth in flooded areas will still be much higher than normal.
"Microbial growth can be a real problem once water recedes, and it may not be readily apparent," said Dr. Roy, who is professor of microbiology and immunology in the Tulane School of Medicine. "It’s a subtle, hidden hazard until remediation is completed."
He said the "witch’s brew" in flood waters is that they can potentially contain petroleum, a variety of chemicals, animal waste, human sewage, and other elements that can pose serious health threats to those who come in contact with the water or flood debris.
"Soil has its own wealth of bacteria, which in general is not harmful to us," Dr. Roy said, "but the presence of ample water causes that bacteria to explode and those higher volumes of bacteria could lead to health issues."
Avoiding contact with flood water - as much as possible - and diligent use of PPE can help reduce health risks, he stressed. Additional threats to flood remediation come in the form of washed out roads, sink holes, unseen objects buried in water or mud, and damage to buildings that may not be immediately recognizable.
"In flood events like these, we need to think of people first, then livestock," said Aaron Yoder, Ph.D., associate professor at the UNMC College of Public Health and the Nebraska Extension. "Make the farm site as safe as possible for livestock, but realize that fences and facilities are likely to be damaged and unstable. The main goal with livestock is to get them to a safe place where they can be fed.
"Recovering livestock also can pose a threat to handlers, since the animals are likely to be in a higher state of anxiety and have more intense levels of adrenalin than what’s seen in everyday circumstances."
He said other common issues with catastrophic floods include inspecting machinery to ensure they’re undamaged and using extra caution with unfamiliar farm machinery that may have been damaged by the flood.
"If there are extra people on site, make sure everyone understands safety practices, such as how to approach a tractor that’s running, not getting caught up in equipment such as generators and being mindful of the potential for hidden debris," Dr. Yoder said.
Another precaution farmers need to take, he said, is with flood-damaged grain. Professional inspection of the grain bin and the grain is necessary to ensure that a flood-stressed bin doesn’t collapse and that flood-damaged grain is properly managed to avoid contaminating undamaged grain.
"Don’t start aeration fans in a flood-damaged bin," Dr. Yoder said. "They may be damaged and cause more harm to you or the bin. By the time flood water recedes, grain is usually moldy, which means dangerous toxins are in the bin."
During flooding, grain bin foundations may be damaged, bolts can be broken or stressed and other aspects of the bin may be compromised, he said.
"Don’t energize anything in the bin or on the farm site before a professional electrician verifies that the site is safe from electrical issues," Dr. Yoder said. "Consult your insurance carrier before moving grain and obtain the consent of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before reconditioning grain exposed to flood waters."
If supplemental power - such as a generator - is used, it’s key to avoid fumes or electrical shock related to the generator, he said. PTO (power takeoff) shafts used to power a generator also add a level of injury risk.
Due to wet, muddy conditions caused by flood waters, the risk of slips, trips and falls and subsequent serious injury is greatly increased during remediation or during the time when water remains on a site, Dr. Yoder said. Documenting all aspects of remediation can assist with insurance claims, and reaching out for help as necessary can help flood victims cope with conditions.
"Flood events like these can result in shock, disbelief, disorientation and a deep sense of feeling powerless," said Tina Chasek, Ph.D., associate professor, department of counseling and school psychology, and director of the Behavioral Health Education Center for Nebraska (BHECN) at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. "Farmers had enough stress before the flood. These kinds of events can easily lead to depression and many types of ill health. Talk to others about what you’re experiencing and ask for help whenever you need it."
Dr. Chasek also reminds those working with flood recovery to "do things that make you feel in control, spend time with family, friends and other social support. Take care of yourself, sleep eat and exercise. Limit exposure to images of the flooding. Establish routines and find time to do things that you enjoy. Avoid making major life decisions until the major impact has passed. And Ask for help when needed."  
Farm and ranch flood-related resources are available on the CS-CASH website:
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