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Even After A Hurricane Is Over, It Can Still Be Dangerous

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hurricane Michael has, according to the latest count, claimed 26 lives across several states. Many of those deaths occurred during the storm when homes collapsed or when people were carried away in flood waters. But even after a hurricane is over, it can still be dangerous, as Jake Harper reports from Panama City, Fla.

JAKE HARPER, BYLINE: I find Jeff Hayes drinking Natty Light with his neighbors in his front yard. Part of his house has collapsed, and he has a plywood sign out front. He wrote with magic marker - we need an electrician.

JEFF HAYES: I put a sign out, hoping someone would drive by and see it.

HARPER: Hayes lost power days ago in Hurricane Michael, so he runs a generator for a fan and refrigerator. Extension cords reach the generator through an open window. And Hayes says he put it outside to avoid carbon monoxide.

HAYES: We moved it - well, I guess it's about 15 feet from the house, you know? And it's wide open in the air and everything, so it won't blow in the house.

HARPER: Hayes is right to keep it outside and far from windows.

Ann Marie Buerkle is acting director of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. She says people do bring them indoors.

ANN MARIE BUERKLE: When you're in these catastrophic situations and you're in a crisis, you're not really thinking as clearly as you might day to day. I mean, in day to day, it's obvious you wouldn't bring it in the house. But when you've got a real different set of circumstances, then it doesn't seem so strange to do.

HARPER: And it kills people. From 2005 through 2017, 71 people died from carbon monoxide poisoning after a hurricane or tropical storm. The most common reason for these kinds of deaths is that people put the generator in their home or garage. So Buerkle says don't do that.

BUERKLE: Make sure it's at least 20 feet away from your home so that any carbon monoxide will not enter your home and will not cause any illnesses or death.

HARPER: I mean, is there a risk of electrocution, too?

BUERKLE: Absolutely. Things have gotten wet, but now they're sort of back to normal. And the power is back on or you've got a generator hooked to them. But making sure they have been checked by a professional before they're used is very important.

HARPER: And there are other risks. Chris Guilbeaux helps run emergency management for the governor's office in Louisiana. He says when people go back to their homes after a storm, they might not understand how dangerous it can be. Take power tools, for example - he says it could be someone's first time using a chainsaw.

CHRIS GUILBEAUX: Certainly, as you're cutting trees off of your property and, you know, trying to restore your home, there's broken glass and shingles, and residents are really in danger then of getting hurt - in their own yard in most cases.

HARPER: And Renee Funk with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says remember the elements.

RENEE FUNK: People are out of power. And you know, when the temperature is even in the 80s, you know, that's still hot enough for people to have heat stroke or heat stress. And so we just want to remind people to take breaks in the shade, drink plenty of water, get into air conditioning if they can.

HARPER: And Funk says keep mental health issues in mind, too. The CDC says to be aware of the signs of stress, like short temper or using alcohol or drugs more.

FUNK: Sometimes people don't have access to their medications and things like that to help them, you know, handle stressful situations. So know that it's normal to have trouble sleeping and, you know, feeling anxiety about this and to, you know, reach out for help.

HARPER: An electrician shows up while I talk to Jeff Hayes. He's on a fixed income and doesn't know how much it'll cost to get his power back. And before I leave, he shows me a tree.

HAYES: Yeah. You see how far that tree's leaning? You see which way it's going?

HARPER: Yeah.

HAYES: Right toward my house.

HARPER: Would that reach your house?

HAYES: Yeah, I believe it would. I'm a pretty good estimate (laughter).

HARPER: Yeah. Yeah, I bet.

Hayes' stress is not over yet. Jake Harper, NPR News, Panama City.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPRESS RISING'S "CORNERS OF YOUR EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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