The Deaths of Two Americans in Florida and Florida

Hurricane Ian Is Blamed for Deadly Bacterial Infections in Florida and Washington

This picture shows a water sample from the San Francisco Bay taken June 6, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

When winds gusted at 115 mph in late June, two U.S. death certificates, dated June 13 and 30, were inexplicably mailed to the same address in the Panhandle town of Dyer. Authorities did not immediately recognize the apparent connection and the couple in the picture were soon back on the road.

But the couple’s deaths proved prescient.

They were part of more than 300 confirmed and suspected deaths of people who contracted gastrointestinal illnesses linked to the outbreak of a rare strain of bacteria commonly found in the water in the Gulf of Mexico. Of those, at least 11 people died in Washington state, and nine in Florida, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The deaths were the result of what were reported as a single, potentially catastrophic bacteria outbreak that stretched from the Mexican border to Georgia. “It was catastrophic,” CDC’s Dr. Anne Schuchat tells TIME. “We were stunned.”

The disease struck the Gulf Coast as well as the Rocky Mountains, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, Jamaica, Haiti, and more than two dozen other states. There was no one-state version of the outbreak. Instead, it started in Florida and then spread to other states and eventually to other countries.

The CDC’s response was swift and decisive. It called the first suspected cases in Florida to the agency’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the state’s drinking water, and began investigating them within hours.

The agency soon realized that the culprit for what was believed to be the deadliest outbreak of gastroenteritis it had ever seen in the U.S. was not the bacteria that killed the people who contracted it in the Gulf of Mexico, as the CDC had originally thought. Instead, it was a water infection that can survive in the environment and kill people, but not until they ingest it, according to a statement from the CDC.

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