Savannah Valley District

Food Safety in Hurricanes and Floods

Christine Patrick, County Extension EFNEP Agent

Flooding often accompanies hurricanes. Persons living in areas subject to floods should be ready to raise refrigerators or freezers by putting cement blocks under their corners. Canned goods and other foods kept in a basement or low cabinets should be moved higher. Flood waters may carry silt, raw sewage, oil, or chemical waste. If food and equipment have been in contact with flood waters, follow these “Safe Handling” recommendations.

 Handling “Flooded” Foods and Equipment:

  • After a flood, wear gloves, boots, and a long-sleeved shirt and long pants to clean up
  • Discard all food or drinking water that came in contact with floodwater, including canned goods. It is impossible to know if the containers were damaged and the seal compromised
  • Discard porous non-food items used with food or put into the mouth if they have been contaminated by floodwater: paper, Styrofoam, and other picnic-type goods; cosmetics and medicines; baby pacifiers and baby bottles nipples; plastic or wooden containers and utensils. They cannot be safely cleaned
  • Garden produce: do not attempt to disinfect, save or preserve crops, even root vegetables exposed to flood waters. If plants survive, the new products that form on them after the flood waters have receded are safe to consume. It will take about a month for a garden to become clean
  • To sanitize dishes and glassware wash them with dishwasher detergent using a scrub brush. Then immerse for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 teaspoon of chlorine bleach per quart of room-temperature water. Disinfect metal pans and utensils by boiling them in clean or treated water for 10 minutes
  • Use a solution of 1 teaspoon bleach per quart of water to clean kitchen counters and other food preparation surfaces, and inside refrigerators and freezers

As during other types of disasters, electricity to the refrigerator and freezer may be off. The key to determining 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. A full freezer should keep food safe for about two days; a half-full freezer, for 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 food should be safe as long as the power is out for no more than about four 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 food inside to reach unsafe temperatures.

If it appears the power will be off for more than four 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. Some foods may look and smell fine, but if they have 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 cause illness.

 Power Outage Chart:

Discard- The following foods should be discarded if kept over two hours above 40 degrees F:

  • Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and egg substitutes — raw or cooked
  • Milk, cream, yogurt, soft cheese (blue, Roquefort, Brie Camembert, cottage, cream Edam, Monterey Jack, ricotta, mozzarella, Muenster, Neufchatel), shredded cheese
  • Casseroles, stews, or soups
  • Lunch meats and hot dogs
  • Creamy-based salad dressings
  • Custard, chiffon or cheese pies, cream-filled pastries, and cookie dough
  • Discard open mayonnaise, tartar sauce, and horseradish if above 50 degrees F for over eight hours

Save- The following foods should keep at room temperature for a few days. Still, discard anything that turns moldy or has an unusual odor:

  • Processed or hard cheese (Cheddar, Colby, Swiss, Parmesan, provolone, Romano)
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables, fruit juices
  • Dried fruits and coconut
  • 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
An appliance thermometer can help you determine whether refrigerated foods have maintained safe temperatures when a power outage has occurred.
Adair Hoover, ©2016 HGIC, Clemson Extension

For more detailed information on food safety during natural disasters & other events, see the following fact sheets on Clemson’s Home and Garden Information Page: Food Safety in Power Outages, Food Safety in Freezer Failure, Food Safety in Hurricanes & Floods, Food Safety After a Tornado, Food Safety After a Fire.

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