A Toxic Storm Brewing in the Tropics
As of 12:00 pm on Friday, August 30th, Hurricane Dorian is projected to swell to a Category 4 storm before it makes landfall on Florida’s Atlantic coastline early Labor Day morning on Monday, September 2nd. These projections come roughly 48 hours after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issues the State of Emergency for all of Florida’s 67 counties, however as of noontime Friday, there have not been any evacuation mandates announced and no official decision has been made regarding the suspension of tolls prior to Hurricane Dorian’s arrival.
If Dorian’s projected path stays the course, it is expected to hit Florida just south of Kennedy Space Center in the early hours of Labor Day morning with winds as strong as 130mph – strong enough to potentially severe damage to local homes, buildings, and other infrastructure. Although it’s still too early to officially tell where the storm will make landfall, Dorian’s current cone of uncertainty encompasses the entire state of Florida.
Hurricane Dorian is but the latest of high-intensity storms to bring potential wreckage to the United States, following in the wakes of hurricanes Michael (2018), Florence (2018), Irma (2017), and Harvey (2017) amongst others. While Florida and its border states are no stranger to damaging hurricanes, the chaos that comes with storms of this size and caliber are almost always unpredictable. Highways are flooded, roofs are torn away, trees are uprooted and power lines down. Those of us who have weathered the might of these storms in the past always hope for the least damage possible, and rightly so: between 1980 and 2018, the damage hurricanes brought to the United States costed the country somewhere in the ballpark of $862 billion (with a “B”), averaging at roughly $21.6 billion per hurricane.
The visible damage hurricanes like Dorian leave behind them is undeniable: anyone who has owned a smartphone in the last two or three years remembers seeing the aftermath of Irma in Puerto Rico and Harvey in Houston. What oftentimes get so easily overlooked in situations like these are the unseen damages storms like these can cause to the communities hit by them, as well as surrounding communities, through the release of hazardous material into the environment. This increases the risk for human exposure to hazardous materials, and in turn, poses a human health risk in the areas affected by severe storms.
In the event of Category 4-5 hurricanes that make landfall in areas with infrastructure not normally designed to withstand storms of that caliber, we end up with a recipe for disaster. Such was the case in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 when it blew through Houston, TX – the fourth largest city in the United States. While a majority of the physical damage to infrastructure and property either has been or is still being dealt with by citizens and officials, the long-term effects of human health exposure to hazardous materials remain to be seen.
In Harvey’s aftermath, local authorities acknowledged the impact these materials may have on Houston and its residents, but records pieced together since then by The Associated Press and The Houston Chronicle shed light on a much broader impact than initially reported.
Marked hazardous material spills and leaks resulting from damage caused by Hurricane Harvey (source: The Associated Press)
The AP’s article describes “some 500 chemical plants, 10 refineries, and more than 6,670 miles of intertwined oil, gas, and chemical pipelines” are located within and around Houston. While Hurricane Harvey hovered over the city pelting it with flooding rains and storm-force winds, hazardous chemicals including vinyl chloride and benzene, amongst others, were released into Houston’s waterways and neighborhoods. East of the city, almost 500,000,000 gallons of industrial wastewater and stormwater surged out of a Baytown power plant along Galveston Bay’s northern shoreline. The article further mentions that of over 100 cataloged releases of hazardous material related to Hurricane Harvey, the majority were never publicized, and testing of state- and federal-level regulators for toxic contaminants in soil and water was “largely limited to Superfund toxic waste sites.” Further, AP notes that the state’s measures to identify and enact cleanup measures in the wake of Harvey are in sharp contrast to the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, which made landfall in Texas in 2008, where a dozen violations were identified and cleanup acts were conducted.
One instance of hazardous material release that occurred during Harvey was a pipeline leak of hydrogen chloride gas. This gas, when it meets moistures, turns into the highly toxic and corrosive hydrochloric acid. The leak spread to cover a quarter-mile in Houston’s industrial sector before firefighters, police, and a hazardous materials response unit were able to end the danger as locals were urged via emergency broadcasts and sirens to remain indoors.
Another hazardous materials leak, this time caused by water surges and runoff from the downpour, ended up causing one Houston resident and her four children to suffer from skin infections and strep throat after they were forced to swim across the street to the safety of a family member’s home, through “slimy brownish-black water that smelled ‘like a rotten sewer’.”
Jessica Chastain, resident of Houston, TX, and her four children suffered health effects from hazardous materials as a result of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 (source: apnews.com)
These are but a few of the documented instances of hazardous material spills and leaks that resulted from Hurricane Harvey tearing through the nation’s largest industrial corridor.
As Hurricane Dorian continues to approach Florida over Labor Day weekend, citizens should remain vigilant of their surroundings as well as any and all threats that may lead to a potential leak or spill of hazardous materials, waste, or chemicals. The stress of preparing for, enduring, and resulting in severe storms such as Dorian often has many of us overlook these risks, focusing instead on the safety of ourselves and our loved ones. As of 2019, over 50 Superfund sites remain in Florida awaiting full-scale cleanup measures to be taken. Spills or leaks from these sites caused by Dorian could see contamination dispersed into surrounding areas that may or may not be aware of the potential danger and risk factors to human health it could pose. Likewise, damage to chemical storage tanks or facilities, utilities processing plants, and groundwater sources can also disperse toxic contamination throughout the length of the storm and even for a time afterward depending on the effects of stormwater to nearby areas.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are seven major factors that increase the risk to human health for hazardous materials during and after storms, including limitations in emergency response related to these storms:
When describing the methods of potentially hazardous material release into the environment, WHO describes six major ways this can occur:
Each of these variations can likewise risk impact on human health in any number of the following ways:
While you prepare to keep yourself and your family safe during the approaching storm, here is a brief checklist to keep on-hand regarding avoiding potential hazardous materials:
Keep a radio tuned into an emergency broadcast system to stay alert of weather updates and news alerts
Remain indoors during the length of the storm and adhere to any and all potential evacuation notices or local curfews
In the event of flooding, seek higher, drier ground in the safest manner possible
Should you encounter strong running water, do not attempt to cross it
Avoid wading through high water to prevent risk exposure to hazardous materials, unseen debris, or dangerous wildlife
Avoid standing water as it is a breeding ground for mosquitos, which can transmit contamination from hazardous material spills or leaks through bites causing a high risk for disease and infection
Do not call 9-1-1 at any time during the storm itself – first responders won’t be able to reach you during the storm, and this will clog emergency telecommunications
From all of us here at ecoSPEARS, be alert and be safe as we weather out this coming storm together. For up-to-date news on Hurricane Dorian and its potential impact on the state of Florida, please tune into alerts from the following agencies:
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