Harvey’s Hidden Storm

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By: Sophia Ahmed

Hurricane Katrina’s Category 5 winds killed nearly 2,000 people when the storm made landfall in August 2005, and Hurricane Harvey damaged an estimated 203,000 homes. Combined, these hurricanes caused destruction that totaled over 400 billion U.S. dollars. Needless to say, hurricanes cause extensive damage to families and infrastructure when their winds rip through the area; however, the effects of these storms ripple through communities long after the winds die off. In fact, the aftermath of a hurricane can cause as much damage as the hurricane itself. Longstanding public health issues caused by sewage, bacteria, chemicals, and mold create an even more horrific image of a hurricane, one that remains long after clean-up crews finish their jobs.

After hurricanes ravage an area, raw sewage accumulates and can be left untreated. This sewage overflow is caused in two different ways: through infrastructure issues and through system outages. When a hurricane’s heavy rains fall, stormwater can flow into sanitary sewers, causing a backup due to old sewage infrastructure. In severe cases, the sewage overflows into buildings and the outside environment.  Piping flaws aren’t the only cause of sewage overflow, though: when the power goes out, electronic sewage pumps can also shut down and subsequently cause overflow. For instance, due to the old wiring of New York’s sewage system, ten out of the city’s fourteen area plants were damaged during Hurricane Sandy. Sewage overflow can cause a variety of issues, including water contamination, which bars people from drinking tap water for weeks after a hurricane. It also induces increased exposure to bacteria—another contaminant that remains after a hurricane dies off.

The bacteria coming from sewage includes E. coli and other pathogenic organisms. While these conditions are usually treatable, pharmacies and hospitals are often either damaged or overwhelmed after hurricanes, making treatment more difficult and disease more rampant. Another bacterial danger arises when people attempt to escape the floodwaters of a hurricane. Open cuts, if exposed to contaminated water, can lead to tetanus, skin rashes, and even infection by flesh-eating pathogens like Vibrio.  Though Vibrio is an extreme case and one of the only deadly contaminants that can arise from hurricanes, non-lethal pathogens should not be overlooked. When left untreated, these conditions can have long-lasting effects, inhibiting a person’s ability to rebuild their lives after a hurricane.

Along with biological contaminants, hurricanes can release chemical contaminants that  exacerbate long-term devastation. Texas is home to many prominent chemical companies and oil refineries, including Exxon Mobil. When Harvey blew through Houston, a year’s worth of chemical pollutants was released into the environment within weeks because of equipment malfunctions and power outages. Chemicals don’t even have to be spilled en masse to cause extensive damage. Residents living by the chemical company Valero in Texas were exposed to 325 parts per billion of a carcinogen called benzene, a concentration that exceeds multiple state standards. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, amounts only about double of that recorded in Texas can cause dizziness and headache in fifteen minutes. Chemicals can also catch fire if environmental conditions like temperature and pressure are altered by a hurricane; the resulting smoke can further spread the lethal effects of chemicals.

While chemical spills are tightly monitored, mold growth is perhaps the most overlooked, yet harmful, long-term remnant of a hurricane. Because people are often evacuated from their homes for weeks after a hurricane, sitting floodwater can soak into the walls and floors of houses. This creates an ideal environment for mold growth. Mold can cause eye and sinus irritations similar to that of a cold. While these symptoms may seem mild, if the mold goes unnoticed, such symptoms will remain for long periods of time. Mold can also induce asthma, especially in children, which can be a lifelong condition. People with especially sensitive mold allergies may even have severe breathing difficulties in a mold-infested environment. Hurricanes can cause mold in offices, homes, schools, or virtually any kind of building, allowing people little escape from its effects. Additionally, according to a study by Dr. Ginger Chew from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, buildings don’t even have to be completely flooded to experience mold growth. A study conducted after Hurricane Katrina found that partial water exposure in conjunction with a humid hurricane aftermath can also lead to ideal conditions for mold growth. This means that after residents return to their homes and offices, even if the buildings weren’t completely flooded, they may be unknowingly exposing themselves to mold and all of the symptoms associated with it.

Hurricanes release a dangerous number of biological and chemical contaminants into our environment, but there is still hope for a safe recovery from these persisting effects. Experts agree that there is a two-pronged approach to minimizing the long-term consequences of hurricanes. The first is to combat climate change. While scientists cannot prove that climate change caused hurricanes like Harvey and Irma, they can say that climate change contributed to their strength and subsequent damage. Hurricanes use heat to fuel their wallop; the temperature of the Eastern Atlantic Oceans was an average of 0.5-1 degrees Celsius warmer this summer. This fits with scientists’ predictions about the direct relationship between rising temperatures with both the frequency and strength of hurricanes.

The second prong, relayed by Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, when speaking to Columbia University’s Earth Institute, concerns rebuilding infrastructure after a hurricane so that it can better withstand future hurricanes and other natural disasters. According to Gerrard, recovery efforts should not be focused on rebuilding infrastructure in the same ways and in the same places as they were before. Instead, the government should reevaluate building materials and set new building standards so that buildings can more effectively handle hurricanes. In addition, new municipal systems, including power grids and sewage plants, should be built so that they can handle high amounts of water and wind.

Executive director of The Earth Institute, Steve Cohen, emphasizes that we must learn from these natural disasters and prepare for future instances. The two methods above can aid in minimizing the destruction mentioned in this article. Better sewage infrastructure can obviously help decrease the likelihood and severity of sewage overflows, which will subsequently decrease the amount of pathogens in the post-hurricane environment. If the locations and facilities of the chemical plants are improved with higher state standards, the chances of chemical spills can also decrease. Finally, if drainage systems are built to be more effective and roofs more hurricane-proof, homes and offices could become more water-resistant, which would prevent the buildup of mold. The importance of preparedness is perhaps the most crucial thing that we can learn from these 2017 hurricanes because even if we can’t stop them, we can overcome them.

Sophia is a freshman in Columbia College planning to major in sustainable development. She is a staff writer for the Columbia Science Review.

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