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Food and Water Safety After a Disaster

If you drink water from a well that has been contaminated with flood waters, or from any other contaminated source, you might develop a gastrointestinal disorder (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, etc.) from viruses, bacteria, or other microorganisms (germs) that may be in the water. You can also become ill from germs on your hands or in contaminated food. Some germs can cause illness when only a few of them are swallowed.

What can I do to protect myself and my family?

  • Make sure your drinking water is safe, whether from a public system or a private well. Observe "boil water" and other notices about your water supply. Private wells in flooded areas should be tested by the Health Department. Check with your public water system to find out the results of tests on their water.
  • Use bottled water that has not been exposed to flood waters. If bottled water is not available, tap water can be boiled for safety.
  • Practice good personal hygiene. Wash your hands carefully with soap and water after using the bathroom and before eating and make sure that your other family members do too. If you do not have clean water, use an antibacterial hand gel.

Follow these recommendations to make sure any food you consume is safe, but "when in doubt, throw it out!"

  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature.
  • The refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about 4 hours if it is unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) and the door remains closed.
  • Discard refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items after 4 hours without power.
  • Food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40°F or below when checked with a food thermometer.
  • Never taste a food to determine its safety!
  • Obtain dry or block ice to keep your refrigerator and freezer 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 full freezer for 2 days.
  • If the power has been out for several days, check the temperature of the freezer with an appliance thermometer. If the appliance thermometer reads 40°F or below, the food is safe to refreeze.
  • If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, check each package of food to determine its safety. If the food still contains ice crystals, the food is safe.
  • Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with flood water. Discard wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers.
  • Thoroughly wash all metal pans, ceramic dishes and utensils that came in contact with flood water with hot soapy water and sanitize by boiling them in clean water or by immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water.
  • Undamaged, commercially prepared foods in all-metal cans and retort pouches (for example, flexible, shelf-stable juice or seafood pouches) can be saved. Follow the Steps to Salvage All-Metal Cans and Retort Pouches in the publication "Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency" at:


This page was last updated April 12, 2012.


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