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Food Safety in Hurricanes and Floods

Charlotte, NC - With Hurricane Isabel setting her sights on the Carolinas and the Virginia Coast, Here are some tips on what supplies you'll need,
  • How to prepare your home appliances to preserve food and avoid flood damage,
  • How to clean water for drinking,
  • Which foods can be salvaged and which to throw away when the power is out, and
  • How to cook food during a power outage.
  • Food and water for 4 to 5 days
  • Hand can opener
  • Battery-powered radio
  • Extra batteries
  • Camp stove or other emergency cooking equipment
  • Flashlights, candles, matches, kerosene lamp
  • Fire extinguisher and first aid kit
  • Bleach
  • Prescription medications
If the National Weather Service announces a hurricane watch, expect hurricane conditions within 24 hours.
  • Purchase bottled water if possible and store in a cool, dry, dark place.
  • Fill the bathtub and large containers with water. Each person will need a gallon of drinking water daily for 4 to 5 days.
  • Children, nursing mothers, people who are ill and those living in hot environments may require extra water.
  • Store an additional ½ gallon per person per day for food preparation and hygiene needs.
  • Turn your refrigerator and freezer to the coldest setting. The colder the food is before a possible power failure, the better it will last.
  • Keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer at all times to see if food is being stored at safe temperatures (40 °F or lower for the refrigerator; 0 °F for the freezer).
  • Keep your freezer as full as possible by freezing water in plastic containers and using them to fill any empty spaces not occupied by frozen food.
  • Group meat and poultry below or on separate trays so their juices will not contaminate each other or other foods if the meat and poultry thaw.
  • Keep a clean cooler on hand. Buy freeze-pak inserts and keep them frozen for use in the cooler.
Using Dry Ice:
Know in advance where you can buy dry and block ice. Purchase three pounds of dry ice per cubic foot of freezer space. A 50-pound block of dry ice placed in a full 18-cubic foot freezer should keep food safe without electricity for two days. Dry ice registers -216 °F, so rubber gloves or tongs must be used when handling it. DO NOT CONSUME DRY ICE. Wrap the ice in brown paper for longer storage, and separate it with a piece of cardboard from direct food contact. Fill a partially empty freezer with crumpled newspaper to cut down on air currents, which cause the dry ice to dissipate. Provide adequate ventilation for carbon dioxide in areas where dry ice is used. Do not cover air vent openings of freezer.

Flooding often accompanies hurricanes. Here are a few steps you can take to protect your food supply and appliances.
  • Try to raise your refrigerator off the ground with cement blocks.
  • Canned goods normally stored in basements, or lower cabinets should be moved to a higher place for storage.
  • Floodwaters can carry silt, raw sewage, oil or chemical waste. If foods in your kitchen have come into contact with floodwaters, follow the safety procedures listed below.

  • Meat, poultry, fish and eggs
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Jams and jellies sealed with paraffin
  • Home canned foods
  • Commercial glass jars of food or beverages including "never opened" jars with waxed cardboard seals (such as mayonnaise and salad dressing), corks, pop tops or peel-off tops
  • All foods in cardboard boxes, paper, foil, cellophane or cloth
  • Spices, seasonings and extracts
  • Opened containers and packages
  • Flour, sugar, grain, coffee and other staples in canisters
  • Garden produce: do not attempt to disinfect, save or preserve crops, even root vegetables exposed to flood waters. If plants survive, the new produce that forms on them after the floodwaters have receded is safe to consume. It will take about a month for a garden to become clean.
  • Dented, leaking, bulging or rusted cans
  • Porous non-food items used with food or put into the mouth: paper, Styrofoam and other picnic type goods; cosmetics and medicines; baby pacifiers and baby bottle nipples; plastic or wooden containers and utensils.

  • Undamaged commercial canned goods are safe if sanitized. First mark contents on can lid with indelible ink. Remove labels, since paper can harbor dangerous bacteria. Then wash cans in a strong detergent solution using a scrub brush. Finally, immerse containers in a solution of 2 teaspoons chlorine bleach per quart of room temperature water. Air-dry before opening. For cooking, empty contents and boil for 10 minutes before eating.
  • Sanitize dishes and glassware the same way. To disinfect metal pans and utensils, boil them in water for 10 minutes. Use a solution of 2 teaspoons bleach per quart of water to clean kitchen counters and other food preparation surfaces, and inside refrigerators and freezers.
After a major storm, assume that all water sources are contaminated until proven safe. Purify all water used for drinking, cooking and washing utensils. Also purify the water used for washing hands, bathing and cleaning kitchen and bathroom surfaces. Do not use water that has a dark color, an odor or that contains floating material. Unless you are absolutely certain that ice is free of contamination, it should not be used in drinks or in direct contact with foods. Ice that is melted for drinking should be decontaminated.

To disinfect water, use one of the following methods:
  • Boil at a rolling boil for 10 minutes. This is the safest method of purifying water and ensures destruction of bacteria and some organisms that are resistant to chemical sanitizers.
  • Add 4 drops of liquid chlorine bleach per quart of water (16 drops or 1/4 teaspoon per gallon). Make sure the bleach is unscented and has no active ingredients other than 5.25 to 6.0 percent sodium hypochlorite.
  • Add 20 drops of 2-percent iodine (sold as tincture of iodine) per gallon of clear water or 40 drops per gallon of cloudy or cold water. Chemically treated water is intended for short-term use only. If iodine-disinfected water is the only water available, it should be used for only a few weeks.
  • Add water purification tablets according to directions on the package. These tablets can be bought at most sporting goods stores.
  • Thoroughly mix these solutions and let the water stand for at least 30 minutes before using. To lessen the flat taste of boiled water, pour the water back and forth several times between two clean containers.
  • Purified water is safe for an indefinite period if stored in thoroughly cleaned and sanitized containers and recontamination is avoided.
  • Always use clean or purified water to wash any parts of the body that have come in contact with surfaces contaminated by floodwaters.
  • Water in water pipes and toilet flush tanks (not bowls) is safe to drink if the valve on the main water line was closed before the storm, and if chemical tank cleaners have not been added to the water.
As during other types of disasters, electricity to the refrigerator and freezer may be off. The key to determine the safety of foods in the refrigerator and freezer is how cold they are, since most foodborne illness is caused by bacteria that multiply rapidly at temperatures above 40 °F.

Leave the Freezer Door Closed: A full freezer should keep food safe about two days; a half-full freezer, about a day. Add bags of ice or dry ice to the freezer if it appears the power will be off for an extended time.

Refrigerated Items: These foods should be safe as long as the power is out no more than about four to six hours. Discard any perishable food that has been above 40 °F for two hours or more and any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture. Leave the door closed; every time you open it, needed cold air escapes causing the foods inside to reach unsafe temperatures.

If it appears the power will be off more than six hours, transfer refrigerated perishable foods to an insulated cooler filled with ice or frozen gel packs. Keep a thermometer in the cooler to be sure the food stays at 40 °F or below.

Never Taste Food To Determine Its Safety: Some foods may look and smell fine, but if they've been at room temperature longer than two hours, bacteria able to cause foodborne illness can begin to multiply very rapidly. Some types will produce toxins, which are not destroyed by cooking and can possibly cause illness. Use the following "Power Out" chart to decide which foods are safe to use or refreeze when power is restored.


The following foods should be discarded if kept over two hours at above 40 °F.
  • Meat, poultry, fish, eggs and egg substitutes - raw or cooked
  • Milk, cream, yogurt and soft cheese
  • Casseroles, stews or soups
  • Lunch meats and hot dogs
  • Creamy-based salad dressings
  • Custard, chiffon or cheese pies
  • Cream-filled pastries
  • Refrigerator and cookie dough
  • Discard open mayonnaise, tartar sauce and horseradish if above 50 °F for over eight hours.
The following foods should keep at room temperature a few days. Still, discard anything that turns moldy or has an unusual odor.
  • Butter or margarine
  • Hard and processed cheese
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables, fruit juices
  • Dried fruits and coconut
  • Opened jars of vinegar-based salad dressings, jelly, relish, taco sauce, barbecue sauce, mustard, ketchup, olives and peanut butter
  • Fresh herbs and spices
  • Fruit pies, bread, rolls and muffins
  • Cakes, except cream cheese-frosted or cream-filled
  • Flour and nuts
Thawed foods that still contain ice crystals may be refrozen. Thawed foods that do not contain ice crystals but you are certain have been kept at 40 °F or below for no more than 1 to 2 days, may be cooked, then refrozen or canned.

After a storm has knocked out electricity or gas lines, cooking meals can be a problem and even hazardous if a few basic rules are not followed. When cooking is not possible, many canned foods can be eaten cold.

Charcoal or gas grills are the most obvious alternative sources of heat for cooking. NEVER USE THEM INDOORS. In doing so you risk both asphyxiation from carbon monoxide and the chance of starting a fire that could destroy your home. Likewise, camp stoves that use gasoline or solid fuel should always be used outdoors.

If you have access to an electrical generator, small electrical appliances can be used to prepare meals. Wood can be used for cooking in many situations. You can cook in a fireplace if the chimney is sound. Be sure the damper is open. If you're cooking on a wood stove, make sure the stovepipe has not been damaged.

If you have to build a fire outside, build it away from buildings; never in a carport. Sparks can easily get into the ceiling and start a house fire. Make sure any fire is well contained. A metal drum or stones around the fire bed are good precautions. A charcoal grill is a good place in which to build a wood fire.