The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, and it’s already been a rough one: 12 named storms, including fierce Hurricane Ida, the strongest storm of the season. When hurricane season approaches, we anticipate extreme winds, heavy rainfall, and massive flooding, all of which can be devastating. Hurricanes destroy infrastructure and homes as well as create other dangerous situations for those living there. In addition to these effects, there are some hidden issues that might not surface until after the rains and wind. One of these issues is the lack of clean and safe water.
Floodwater following a hurricane or massive rainstorm is more than simple rainwater–it’s typically contaminated with sewage, chemicals, and dangerously sharp objects like metal and glass. In areas hit heavily by natural disasters, water treatment plants may not be operating as normal, or even if they are, water lines may be tainted (1). As hurricanes churn over the ocean, they can bring rain that contains chemicals and undrinkable salt water. This rain then falls in rural areas, where fertilizers and pesticides can quickly contaminate private wells. In urban areas, city freshwater sources can also become contaminated. As the floodwaters move, they bring with them enormous amounts of contaminants like chemicals, sewage, and other debris (2). Flooding waters can breach water reservoirs causing contamination that water treatment systems cannot keep up with. Uprooted trees caused by heavy winds can also cause water line pipes to break or crack. In addition to fallen debris, sewage spills can contaminate water lines and affect utilities. Contaminated drinking water is a significant health risk, especially for those who are most vulnerable including infants, children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems. Contaminated drinking water following major flooding is at risk for carrying diseases such as cholera, hepatitis, e. Coli, and dysentery (1).
In fact, historic water quality after hurricanes has shown just that. Within a few days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that more than 1,220 drinking water systems and more than 200 wastewater treatment facilities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama had been affected, causing a large outbreak of gastrointestinal diseases triggered by e. Coli due to the lack of safe, potable water (1). In 2012 as a result of Hurricane Sandy, more than 690 wastewater and drinking water utilities in 11 states were compromised (2). In 2017, Hurricane Harvey caused significant and lasting damages to southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas. In the wake of the storm, safe and clean drinking water quickly became a major concern as the public drinking water supplies in many areas had been compromised and contaminated when floodwater inundated reservoirs (1). And most recently, Hurricane Ida, which made landfall on Aug. 29, 2021, left water systems with severed pipes, broken treatment units, and power outages. In New Orleans, the Sewerage and Water Board asked residents to conserve water to prevent sewage backups (3). Around 642,000 people remained without access to clean water, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.
Intensified by climate change, Hurricane Ida is one of the strongest storms on record to hit the Gulf Coast. Underlying the immediate devastation is the fact that Louisiana has one of the worst water systems in the country, which has left it vulnerable to storms like Ida. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, gave the state’s drinking water system a D- in a recent infrastructure report card (4). Nearly 60 percent of Louisiana’s water systems—1,335—are more than half a century old (4). Most of these systems are chronically underfunded, according to the ASCE, creating threats to water quality. The pre-existing fragility of Louisiana’s water systems creates a situation in which, as demonstrated by Hurricane Ida, it doesn’t take much to tip the scales from dysfunctional to full-blown shutdowns. Roughly 30 percent of state parishes are at risk of saltwater intrusion into their wells and aquifers.
But the problems go beyond power and pipelines. With rising sea levels, approximately 30 percent of the state parishes are at risk of saltwater entering the wells and aquifers where they source their water, according to ASCE’s 2017 report card.
Finding long-term solutions to the state’s water woes will not be easy, but experts say funding is a must. Conservation and creating a water resource management plan can help.
(1) “Hurricanes and Flooding Effect on Drinking Water.” Clearwater Systems, 11 Sept. 2018, www.clearwatersystems.com/how-hurricanes-and-major-flooding-affect-drinking-water.
(2) Postiff, Michelle. “How Do Hurricanes Affect Water Quality?” Connect For Water, 9 Sept. 2021, www.connectforwater.org/how-do-hurricanes-affect-water-quality.
(3) Walton, Brett. “Hurricane Ida Damages Louisiana Water Systems, Cuts Water Service.” Circle of Blue, 1 Sept. 2021, www.circleofblue.org/2021/world/hurricane-ida-damages-louisiana-water-systems-cuts-water-service.
(4) Rubiano A., María Paula. “Hurricane Ida Left a Huge Water Crisis in Its Wake.” Mother Jones, 10 Sept. 2021, www.motherjones.com/environment/2021/09/hurricane-ida-unsafe-drinking-water-crisis-new-orleans-louisiana.
Cover Photo from AP