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BE CAREFUL OUT THERE

Debby's watery wrath is being felt on the roadways, in homes and could affect your health. Here's expert advice to protect yourself. Find more at tampabay.com

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Driving safely

The smartest move is to keep yourself and your car out of flooded streets. But if you must drive, here's advice from Max Lewis, manager of Downtown Auto in St. Petersburg.

- Keep an eye on the car in front of you, to see how deep the water is. "If it's touching the bumper, don't go," Lewis said.

- Proceed as slowly as possible, with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake. Pump your brakes to keep them dry.

- Driving fast might seem a good way to get through high water, but you run the risk of sucking more water into the engine.

- If it's a two-lane street, drive in the center of the road if possible, taking turns with motorists in the other direction. That's the crown of the road, its highest point.

- If your car stalls, it likely will not start back up. "If it does, it's luck or a fluke," Lewis said. You may need to proceed on foot.

- If you've driven through an area that has been flooded with brackish or saltwater, you should have your vehicle's undercarriage washed.

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Staying healthy

Dr. John Sinnott, director of infectious diseases at the USF medical school, stopped his car Sunday in St. Petersburg to urge kids playing in floodwaters to get out. Why? It's the bacteria and viruses in contaminated water. So kids, knock it off. Parents, here are tips:

- Items that have been touched by floodwaters - particularly anything youngsters might put in their mouths - should be carefully disinfected.

- Discard wooden items, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers touched by floodwaters - they can't be safely cleaned.

- Wounds that have been exposed to floodwaters should be cleaned with soap and water, swabbed with antiseptic and antibacterial ointment and covered with a clean dressing.

- If redness, swelling or a discharge develops, seek immediate medical attention.

- If you must wade through standing water, bathe with soap and put on clean clothes as soon as possible. "It's not enough to just rinse off with a garden hose," Sinnott says.

- If you're cleaning up after the flood, wash hands with soap frequently.

- Mosquitoes - and the diseases they carry - will be more of a threat. Protect yourself outdoors with clothing and repellents containing DEET. Drain standing water away from your home and repair torn screens.

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Keeping your pool in shape

John Verdaasdonk, owner of the Pinch A Penny pool store in St. Petersburg's Tyrone area, offers these tips for flooded pools:

- Drain the water out of the pool just to the skimmer line. Don't overdo it. "You may literally pop your pool out of the ground if you do that."

- Add a jug of liquid chlorine to combat algae.

- Test the water for chemical levels. The stabilizer level is the most important chemical because it protects chlorine from the sun.

- Remove as much of the debris as possible from the pool and clean the filter.

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Drying out a wet house

Whether a small amount of water has lapped into your house, or you've had a full-on flood, you'll need to take precautions to ensure the damp doesn't turn into bigger problems, such as mold.

- As soon as you're allowed back in and it's safe to turn on the electricity turn the air conditioning on to start the movement of cool, dry air. If there's no A/C, don't open the doors and windows; humidity outside may be higher than inside.

- If the house is truly soaked, you may need professional equipment: high-velocity air movers and dehumidifiers.

- Washing surfaces with a bleach solution or painting over mold with primers will hide mold, but physical removal is the only real solution. That means cutting out drywall, soaked insulation and sanding wood studs.

- Vinyl wall covering should be removed. It acts as a vapor barrier so the wall behind it can't dry. Don't cover items with plastic unless thoroughly dry.

- Remove soaked carpets and pads. Insurers will regard them as unsalvageable.

- If water penetrates the roof, ceilings may collapse, insulation is soaked, water soaks walls and drips down through air-conditioning vents.

- If you have a septic tank and plumbing problems, call your county health department for advice.

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Getting saltwater out of the yard

Most yards will be fine if the water is there for a few days, said Nicole Pinson of the Hillsborough County Extension Service. Her advice to minimize damage:

- Turn off your irrigation system. The lawn is wet enough.

- Grass should start growing when standing water is drained. Don't let it grow too high; clipping more than a third of it in one mowing could damage it.

- Turf and plants exposed to saltwater should be doused thoroughly with fresh water to wash it away. Many popular grasses, such as St. Augustine and Bermuda grass, will do fine.

- Prune or saw broken tree branches back to major limbs or trunk, making clean, even cuts.

- Don't fertilize; it will get washed away in the next rain anyway.

- Shaded areas will take longer to dry out, so adjust your irrigation schedule to avoid fungus.

- Remove debris to allow sunlight to get through to turf.

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Saving food from contamination

When floodwaters get into your kitchen, food safety can be a real concern, both because of power loss and the water itself.

- Do not eat any food in non-waterproof containers that have touched floodwater. For canned foods, discard paper labels and label with a marker. Disinfect cans so bacteria won't get in when you open the can.

- Metal and ceramic utensils and cookware should be washed with soap and hot water, then sanitized

- Never taste food to see if it's safe. Contamination doesn't necessarily make food taste bad. If in doubt, toss it out.

- If you lose power, keep refrigerator doors closed. A full freezer should keep food safe for about two days; a half-full freezer, about a day. Refrigerated foods should be safe if the power is out 4-6 hours.

- Discard anything that's moldy.

- You can refreeze thawed foods that still contain ice crystals. Cook and refreeze foods kept below 40 degrees for a day or so; discard all else.

Times staff writers Richard Martin, Irene Maher and Sharon Kennedy Wynne contributed to this report.

Sources: Hillsborough County Health Department; www.cdc.gov; www.fda.gov. Prevention.com; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; U.S. Department of Agriculture; Clemson University Cooperative Extension; Times files

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