Food Safety After a Natural Disaster

Reviewed by Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN
Food Safety in the Home After a Hurricane and Flooding

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Good emergency preparedness includes having a plan. This may mean stocking up fresh water, shelf-stable foods, batteries, flashlights, phone charger packs and other supplies, but it also means keeping health documentation, current medications and other necessities handy in the event of an evacuation.

After a disaster, people need to assess all food and food preparation areas and equipment to decide what to keep or throw away. Power outages may be among the most common results of a natural event, whether it be a hurricane, flood, earthquake, winter storm, wildfire or other disaster. Other events, especially if accompanied by flooding, can contaminate the public water supply, making water in the affected area unsafe to drink. Local announcements should provide updated information on the water supply.

Power Outages

  • If the power in a refrigerator goes out, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature. The refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours if it is unopened. A full freezer will keep the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) if the door remains closed. Buy dry or block ice to keep the refrigerator as cold as possible if the power is going to be out for a prolonged period of time. Fifty pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic-foot fully-stocked freezer cold for two days. 
  • Once the power is restored, determine the safety of your food. If an appliance thermometer was kept in the freezer, check the temperature when the power comes back on. If the freezer thermometer reads 40°F or below, the food is safe and may be refrozen. If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, check each package of food to determine its safety. You can't rely on appearance or odor. If the food still contains ice crystals or is 40°F or below, it is safe to refreeze or cook.
  • Refrigerated food should be safe as long as the power was out for no more than four hours and the door was kept closed. Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs or leftovers) that has been above 40°F for two hours or more.
  • Perishable food such as meat, poultry, seafood, milk and eggs that are not kept adequately refrigerated or frozen may cause illness if consumed, even when they are thoroughly cooked.
  • Discard refrigerators that have been submerged in flood water, or if enough moisture was present from liquefied food items to reach the insulation inside the equipment.
  • Run your dishwasher (empty) through three complete cycles to flush the water lines and assure that they are cleaned internally before washing dishes and utensils in it.
  • Discard all ice in ice machines; clean and sanitize (1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of potable water) the interior surfaces; run the ice through three cycles; and discard ice with each cycle.

Flood Waters

  • Do not eat any food that may have come into contact with flood water. If in doubt, throw it out.
  • Do not eat food packed in plastic, paper, cardboard, cloth and similar containers that have been water damaged. 
  • Discard food and beverage containers with screw-caps, snap lids, crimped caps (soda bottles), twist caps, flip tops and home canned foods, if they have come in contact with flood water. These containers cannot be disinfected. 
  • Undamaged, commercially-prepared foods in all-metal cans or retort pouches can be saved if you remove the labels, thoroughly wash the cans, rinse them and then disinfect them with a sanitizing solution consisting of 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of potable water. Finally, re-label containers that had the labels removed, including the expiration date, with a marker.

Drinking Water

Area health departments will determine whether tap water can be used for drinking. If water is not potable or is questionable, follow these directions to purify it:

  • Use bottled water that has not been exposed to flood waters if it is available. 
  • If you don't have bottled water, you should boil water to make it safe. Boiling water will kill most types of disease-causing organisms that may be present. If water is cloudy, filter it through clean cloths or allow it to settle, and draw off clear water for boiling. Boil the water and let it cool, and store it in clean containers with covers.
  • If you can't boil water, you can disinfect it using household bleach. Bleach will kill some, but not all, types of disease-causing organisms that may be in the water. If water is cloudy, filter it through clean cloths or allow it to settle, and draw off clear water for disinfection. Add ⅛ teaspoon (or 8 drops) of regular, unscented, liquid household bleach for each gallon of water, stir it well and let it stand for 30 minutes before you use it. Store disinfected water in clean containers with covers.
  • If you have a well that has been flooded, the water should be tested and disinfected after flood waters recede. If you suspect that your well may be contaminated, contact your local or state health department or agriculture extension agent for specific advice.

Food Contact Surfaces and Equipment

  • When cleaning or disinfecting, wear protective clothing, such as gloves, to avoid skin contact, irritation or infection.
  • Discard wooden cutting boards, wooden dishes and utensils, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers that have come into contact with flood water. These items cannot be safely cleaned. 
  • Thoroughly wash metal pans, ceramic dishes and utensils (including can openers) with soap and water, using hot water if available. Rinse and then sanitize by boiling in clean water or immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water (or the cleanest, clearest water available).
  • Thoroughly wash countertops with soap and water, using hot water if available. Rinse and then sanitize by applying a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water (or the cleanest, clearest water available). Allow to air dry.
  • Make sure to carefully clean corners, cracks and crevices, door handles and door seals in rooms that have been affected by flood water.

For more information on keeping food safe before and after an emergency, go to FoodSafety.gov's page about Food Safety in a Disaster or Emergency.

Additional Resources

Avalanche:

Drought:

Earthquakes:

Heat Waves:

Hurricanes:

Floods:

Landslides:

Power Outages:

Tornadoes:

Volcanoes:

Winter Storms:

Wildfires:

Emergency Plans for Disease and/or Other Considerations

Cancer:

Diabetes:

Disabilities/Special Needs:

Kidney/Renal Disease:

Pregnancy:

Seniors:

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