NAPLES, Fla. — Emergency responders in the Everglades City area, a low-income fishing community walloped by Hurricane Irma last weekend, may be faced with a deadly public health crisis as families spend day after day in the mud, mold and water left behind by 10 feet of storm surge that destroyed hundreds of homes.
The deluge of potentially toxic stormwater has raised the specter of widespread infection, sent at least half a dozen to the hospital, cost one man his leg and may have sickened another who died Saturday.
Lee Marteeny, 72, died at Physicians Regional hospital after doctors treated him for respiratory failure and internal bleeding, his wife, Lisa, said. Red sores on Marteeny’s legs, caused by years of poor circulation and heart disease, turned ink black after he waded through Irma’s floodwaters.
Marteeny had helped Lisa clean their destroyed trailer, thick with mud and the smell of mold, as the water settled into the floors and walls. With no shelter or temporary housing in town, the couple slept in the trailer, a hot box without any ventilation or power.
An ambulance transported Marteeny to the hospital Friday.
“He was crying and moaning in agony,” Lisa Marteeny, 62, said Sunday in between bursts of tears. On Saturday, he was dead.
“I thought maybe they’d just need to keep him overnight,” she said.
Marteeny’s cause of death was unclear Sunday. His wife hadn't yet been given a report from the Collier County medical examiner.
Statewide, at least 34 deaths have been attributed to Hurricane Irma, according to Alberto Moscoso, communications director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
And the conditions in Everglades City are ripe for infections that could turn deadly, said Dr. Robert Tober, medical director for Collier County EMS.
“I certainly can’t conclude that because his legs were exposed to dirty water, he is now dead,” Tober said. “But those conditions certainly enhance the risk.”
David Curry, 80, cut his leg on a piece of wood while cleaning after the storm. It was a small scrape, and he thought nothing of it, said Josh Lewis, one of Curry's tenants who was working with him at the time.
Two days later, Curry was in critical condition at a hospital with a life-threatening infection that ravaged his vital organs, shutting down both kidneys, said Susan Simoes, Curry’s daughter. Doctors amputated the leg Friday.
“I’m just blown away by the whole thing,” Simoes said. “He would have lost his life had he not gotten that amputated.”
Reporters interviewed dozens of residents last week who have spent hours each day working in the mud and sludge, often barefoot or in flip-flops, trying to salvage what’s left of their homes. Mountains of their former property, from mattresses to family photos, line the streets.
Tober, the medical director, said homes with potentially dirty water are unlivable.
“I don’t think anybody can be left with their feet in sewage water,” he said. “Nobody can be standing in water, certainly not water that’s grossly infected.”
Paramedics sent a little girl to the hospital after a paper cut got infected and streaked up her wrist. They treated another child with an oozing laceration in his leg. The mayor’s mother is in the hospital with an infection she developed after the storm.
“It’s basically sewage down here,” said Mackenzie Yates, an EMT stationed near the firehouse Sunday. “We’re definitely dealing with bacteria.”
Standing sewage water can crack skin on people’s legs, creating open wounds at high risk of infection. Mold in homes tends to irritate lungs and could cause respiratory infections.
“High 90s, super humid, it’s like a petri dish for mold,” said Frank Zeigon, an insurance claims consultant in California. He said people working in those conditions should be wearing hazmat gear to prevent infection. “It’s devastating.”
Some, like Lisa and Lee Marteeny, were sleeping in it.
Tober said residents can also fight mold by drying out their homes with air conditioning and fans. But as of Sunday evening, Everglades City’s population of roughly 1,500 was without power, the only area entirely without service among Lee County Electric Cooperative's eight coverage zones.
The Naples Daily News reported earlier this week that many septic systems around Everglades City run on electricity, which has been out since the storm, possibly leading to sewage leaks.
The Florida Department of Health in Collier County didn’t have boots on the ground in Everglades City, a town of about 400 souls between the Barron River and the Big Cypress National Preserve, until Saturday.
Dan Summers, director of the bureau of emergency services, didn’t know there was a possible storm-related death in Everglades City until he was notified by a reporter Sunday.
Summers said full-time medical help didn’t come sooner because Everglades City officials didn’t ask.
“We asked them repeatedly, 'What do you need and what do you want,'” Summers said. “I think it became overwhelming for them.”
Everglades City Mayor Howie Grimm, who has been in office for less than two weeks, said he may have failed to communicate the gravity of the local health risks earlier last week.
“It might have been my fault for not going through the right channels,” he said. “It’s been a whirlwind.”
Full-time medical assistance from the county began Sunday. Crews went door-to-door for welfare checks and to hand out flyers on avoiding foodborne and waterborne illnesses. Health officials also set up a public shower at the Everglades City airport and administered 80 tetanus shots to residents before the team ran out of supplies.
Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart toured the area Sunday. Both said they were concerned about standing water contamination.
"To me, this is the scariest part of all," Diaz-Balart said. "Any cut right now has to be treated as a serious issue."
A federal disaster health care team of 15 workers was scheduled to arrive in Everglades City on Sunday night for round-the-clock assistance.
Residents covered in mud lined up Sunday outside the First Baptist Church for their tetanus shots, many with undressed wounds.
One of the people in line, Doug Stamm, 69, said he has to go to the emergency room after cutting his ankle on a piece of glass inside a destroyed trailer.
“It’s a toxic place to be inside,” Stamm said. “You can almost watch the mold grow.”