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Some volunteers become ill after Cedar City flash flood cleanup

Posted at 10:06 PM, Jul 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-29 00:06:08-04

CEDAR CITY, Utah — It was only natural to want to jump in and help.

Michele Fogg said she saw the flash flood damage in Cedar City while looking at Facebook Monday evening. Michele, her husband, 13-year old son and soon-to-be 12-year old daughter put shovels in a trailer and drove to University West Apartments, one of the areas hit the hardest.

Flood waters rose 6 feet high at one point, leaving people to crawl through windows and swim to safety from an entire row of basement apartments.

"We just wanted to go see what we could do," Fogg said.

Related: State of Emergency declared after widespread flooding in Cedar City

The family wanted to make an impact and help those living in the apartments, who in this case were almost all SUU students, clean up.

The Fogg family definitely felt that impact.

"The next morning my daughter was just like, 'Mom, I don't feel well,'" Fogg recounted.

In fact, all four of them weren't feeling well.

Thinking back to the night before, Fogg realized the water may not have been safe to be standing in for hours.

Even with rubber boots and gloves, Fogg described how there was no avoiding the gunk. It was all over them.

She talked about how people were walking around barefoot. A 15-year old boy, she said, was using his bare hands to hold the water pump hose and scoop stuff out.

"We were holding screens, to keep the debris back," she explained. "So here I'm standing in this muck, me and my son holding screens to keep the stuff [out] so he could siphon the water out, it wouldn't get all the trash in it."

While Fogg explained she and her husband mostly just didn't feel great the next morning, her son and daughter both felt nauseated.

"My daughter is the worst," Fogg explained. "She's been having a fever, and she says she feels shaky and nauseated."

Related: Cleanup underway in Cedar City after flooding causes extensive damage

Dr. Brian Moench, President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, isn't surprised to hear of the Fogg family's experience. He said flu-like symptoms can develop 10 days after someone is exposed to flash flood water.

"Flood waters need to be considered contaminated, unless proven otherwise," he said. "And they could be contaminated with all kinds of things."

Those things, Dr. Moench listed off, could include pathogens like E. coli or salmonella, bacteria, sewage, or chemicals.

Take, for example, the fact that the toilets in all the basement apartments were completely submerged in the water-- and one can understand what might be in the water that volunteers were trudging through for hours.

Dr. Moench said that sometimes, the secondary effects of the event may be worse than the primary event itself and can put public health at stake.

"Skin is the largest organ in the body and it's a massive open door, if you will, to all kinds of infections and potential disease," he said. "So, protecting your skin from exposure to these flood waters is important, if people have the time to do that."

That protection, Dr. Moench said, should include rubber boots, rubber pants or waders, and rubber gloves. He said anyone exposed to flash flood waters should limit exposure time, wash hands with soap and water, shower with clean water immediately afterward, clean out all cuts and abrasions, and put on fresh clothes.

He said it doesn't take much for a skin abrasion to be an entry site for a serious infection.

Children can be especially vulnerable, he indicated, and should be kept away.

Related: 200 SUU students displaced from flooding; Iron County declares emergency

He said no one would fault families like the Foggs for jumping in on their natural impulses.

"That's a good Samaritan impulse, and we don't want to snuff that out," he said. "But at the same time, if there is time to protect yourself before you jump in and try and help out or save the situation, then you should take some precautions for your own protection and that of everyone else involved."

That's what Fogg would have done differently: Take a moment to assess and plan their efforts to help. She would have made sure her kids didn't get down into the flooded apartments.

She's also hoping to help other families be aware of the potential impacts before they rush to help clean up after any future flash flooding situations.

While her daughter felt a little better Wednesday, Fogg said if her daughter continues to feel sick, they'll go to the doctor.

"You have to do what you have to do in an emergency situation, but... I think the situation we were in, in wasn't life or death," she said. "It was wanting to be helpful. But maybe precautions, taking precautions."