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Health Issues Arise in the Red River Valley
By Hope Deutscher
May 4, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Health officials in the Red River Valley are reporting a dramatic increase in deaths, miscarriages, and other illnesses. Some are blaming last year's flooding, but researchers say it will take months of study to know for sure - or even the extent of the problems.

VICTORIA RINERSON sings with about a dozen other residents gathering at a morning worship service at the Sunnyside Nursing Home in Lake Park, Minnesota.

84-year-old Rinerson moved to this nursing home about a year ago when floodwaters washed over Ada. She was among the 46 nursing home residents evacuated from the city.

Rinerson: I remember being woke up at 4 o'clock in the morning, saying: "We've got no power, the water's coming." They dressed us and shipped us out. We got out before the real water came, but it was up to the running boards when we got out.

Within days of the evacuation, three Ada nursing home residents died. A year later half the residents have passed away. Rinerson herself has suffered a heart attack and a bout with pneumonia.

It's not hard to believe that people are getting sick. As Ada's Director of nursing, Charlie Hicks walks through the old Ada medical facility, which is waiting to be demolished. The locked building is cold, dark, and musty - water still stands in the elevator shaft. Brown and black splotches of mold make it look as if a child has just finished finger painting the wall.

It's eerie walking through the dark vacant hallways once filled with life.

Hicks There's always remorse when you come in here because this is someone's home, and it's been destroyed...and now it's nothing. It's just a big, cold, dank building
Medical supplies are strewn about on the floor. Wheelchairs and beds are sitting in hallways. For the most part, things are as they were left a year ago.

It doesn't take long for the cold, clammy atmosphere to get to visitors - mentally and physically. Hicks knows.

Hicks: Every time we were in here last summer, two days later we'd be sick.
Hicks says upper-respiratory infections at Ada's clinic are up about 30 percent from previous years.
Hicks: A lot of the people that we're seeing have existed in these homes full of mold and mildew. All of the sudden we've had them in here with these upper respiratory problems that we find hard to treat. They certainly don't follow the traditional upper-respiratory illnesses or diseases that you would see in this part of the country at this time of year.
Grand Forks Public Health Director Don Shields is hearing stories of other health problems.
Shields: ...quite an increase in premature deliveries, in addition the October through December 1997 rate for miscarriages were higher than we would have in an entire year. And third in February we saw a tremendous (number) of births here in town.
Shields does have hard numbers on the birthrate, but most of the information about how the flood may be affecting health is anecdotal.

And that's why two health officials in Grand Forks are collecting and studying scientific data to determine the health effects of the flooding.

Researcher Dr. James Hargreaves says no one has ever studied how a flood effects people's health, and speculation ran rife as the Red River swept through Grand Forks.

Hargreaves: Before the flood came people were saying, we're going to have various infectious diseases problems, such as cholora, etc., and when you looked at what data there was - there was no infectious disease such as cholora, what-have-you there's a lot a of misconceptions.
Hargreaves has received a grant of almost $200,000 to study the physical, mental, and social effects of the flood. He and his assistant will sift through hundreds of thousands of medical charts to compare the two years before the flood with the time since.

Hargreaves says the flood could have an effect on almost any aspect of health. For instance, some doctors claim they've operated on more hernias in the last year as a result of people mucking out their basements.

But Heargraves stresses that the hernia issue, just like many others, is based on non-scientific observations.

Heargraves: Anecdotal stuff you've got to remember is very dangerous. Bad data is toxic. You get mis-information. And so anecdotal...although it's something to begin to look it's hardly a fact. You've got to say, "Look, let's look at this and see if it's related or not." And that's the goal of the study.
The survey's results will not be available for possibly another two years.

Grand Forks Public Health Director, Don Shields says the finding will offer reassurance to people along the Red River.

Sheilds: Well, I'm hoping that some of the anecdotal things that we have listed and talked about here. I think can be linked to a flood, so it can help other communities that are going to go through this, so that they can get the volunteer groups and the assistance, and get those things set in place very, very early.
Shields says he expects to see a rise in mental health problems in coming months as more people begin to deal with the stress caused by financial burdens of rebuilding.