Emergency Preparedness and Response

Hurricane Ida Spotlights Critical Deficiencies in Climate Change Preparation (Part 2)

News stories continue to reveal the devastating aftermath from Hurricane Ida, which made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2021. The storm’s death toll has reached 84 deaths across eight states, including fatalities as far north as Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey due to severe flooding from the storm. Some areas in Louisiana were still without electricity nine days after the storm made landfall.

The aftermath of intense weather events such as Hurricane Ida exposes areas where industry, government, and citizens are not doing enough to prepare for these types of incidents.

This article is part 2 of a two-part series identifying climate change-related issues and steps that can be taken to create better resilience. Part 2 focuses on flooding, hazardous and nonhazardous waste spills and discharges into floodwater, drinking and wastewater systems, and necessary infrastructure upgrades. (Part 1 of the series provides information on energy, oil and gas, and air quality.)

Flooding

The remnants of Hurricane Ida met an extratropical front to create very extreme rainfall in the Northeast.

“More than three days after the hurricane blew ashore in Louisiana, Ida’s rainy remains hit the Northeast with stunning fury on Wednesday and Thursday, submerging cars, swamping subway stations and basement apartments and drowning scores of people in five states,” reports AP News. “Intense rain overwhelmed urban drainage systems never meant to handle so much water in such a short time — a record 3 inches (7.5 centimeters) in just an hour in New York. Seven rivers in the Northeast reached their highest levels on record, Dartmouth College researcher Evan Dethier said.

“The disaster underscored with heartbreaking clarity how vulnerable the U.S. is to the extreme weather that climate change is bringing. In its wake, officials weighed far-reaching new measures to save lives in future storms.”

In October 2012, Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy took almost 220 lives and caused nearly $70 billion in damages from the Caribbean to the U.S. East Coast. It served as a wake-up call for many in New York and New Jersey when they discovered they did not have flood insurance and that critical flood wall infrastructures were old and out of date, says National Geographic. “New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at the time that his state’s infrastructure needed to be rethought, not just rebuilt.”

One solution proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect New York from future flooding caused by hurricanes was the construction of a 6-mile-long swinging barrier gate at the cost of $119 billion, according to The New York Times.  Opponents of the project said it only addresses storm surge; does nothing to address flooding from high tides or storm runoff; and “could be obsolete within decades because, they say, the Corps’s estimates of future sea levels are too low.”

Seawalls and gates in any community can actually make matters worse, the Environmental Defense Fund asserts. Severe rain can cause stormwater and sewage systems to back up, which pushes wastes into nearby waterways.  Barriers would trap all that waste close to shore.

Some experts push for more nature-based solutions, along with critical infrastructure updates for communities vulnerable to flooding.

Jeffrey Raven, associate professor in the graduate program in urban and regional design at the New York Institute of Technology, believes the construction of “sponge city” projects should be prioritized, reports City & State New York.  “Faced with the urgent need to mitigate and adapt to climate change, New York City must prioritize urban design that accomplishes both. Sponge City infrastructure such as green roofs, underground stormwater basins, permeable pavements, and bioretention facilities help urban areas soak up as much stormwater as possible while also reducing carbon emissions, enhancing non-motorized transport networks and cooling the city.”

“Green infrastructure and nature-based solutions provide co-benefits to environmental justice communities by improving water and air quality, providing more green and open space, building community resiliency, supporting resilient industries, mitigating the urban heat island effect and creating new local job opportunities,” agrees Eddie Batista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

“While New York City and entities like the MTA have taken important steps in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we are in a race against an accelerating foe, and we are behind,” emphasizes Robert Freudenberg, vice president of energy and environment at the Regional Plan Association, in City & State New York. “We must hasten efforts to both adapt to climate change and address its root cause by dramatically reducing the region’s greenhouse gas emissions. That means investing in critical infrastructure, making communities more livable and less vulnerable, and enhancing natural systems like wetlands and forests.”

Hazardous and nonhazardous waste spills and discharges into floodwater

Floodwater after hurricanes often contains chemicals, soil contaminants, hazardous waste from older structures, and biological waste, all blended to form a toxic stew. Chemical spills because of extreme weather conditions are becoming more frequent, which means that communities are often dealing with exposure to hazardous waste and toxic chemicals on top of a natural disaster.

“[M]any facility operators aren’t equipped to handle weather-related emergencies,” says Chemical Processing. “One of the most dangerous and costly mistakes chemical plant managers can make is neglecting to prepare hazardous waste for the impact of natural disasters.”

After Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, “[46] industrial sites released approximately 4.6 million pounds of hazardous materials from preemptive shutdowns and startups, leaks, or explosions, and several Superfund sites were underwater for days,” according to the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR). “In particular, flooding at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, disabled the refrigeration system, causing organic peroxides to explode. As a result, 21 people sought medical attention and hundreds within 1.5 miles of the plant evacuated their homes.

“Despite presumed dilution of contaminants by floodwaters, heavy metal concentrations in stream water increased after the hurricane, demonstrating the sheer volume of contaminants present. Furthermore, an assessment of Manchester—a Houston neighborhood with 21 toxic facilities within one mile—found that residents were exposed to elevated levels of [polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)] through household dust and outdoor soil redistributed by floodwaters. Long-term exposure to PAHs contributes to an elevated risk of developing breast, lung, gastrointestinal, and bladder cancer.”

Studies cited by CPR indicate 197 different hazardous substances were released in 166 events. While more events only release 1 hazardous substance, some release as many as 8.

“Among the more common toxicants released are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), [PAHs], petroleum, and heavy metals,” says CPR. “Floodwaters may also stir up existing contaminants present in soil and waterways.”

CPR calls for better regulation at federal, state, and local levels and for these entities to address “the folly of leaving toxic chemicals in the path of perfectly predictable floodwaters.”

Resilience tips for the chemical industry include:

  • Identify hazardous waste, and ensure the facility complies with Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulations.
  • Create an emergency response plan, and train accordingly.
  • Safeguard waste to ensure there are no releases within the facility or in any neighboring communities.
  • Whenever possible, remove any excess hazardous material and waste from the facility before extreme weather events.
  • Create reinforced areas for storing bulk waste and hazardous materials that are safe from flooding, and consider elevated storage for these types of materials whenever practical.
  • After an extreme weather event, check material status for any compromised materials, and determine what must be removed and replaced.
  • Respond appropriately to any container leaks by following proper documentation procedures and safety protocols.

The EPA requires facility owners and operators to minimize chemical releases during shutdown operations and to report releases immediately.

CPR calls for the following actions from federal, state, and local regulators:

  • “Prioritizing inspection and enforcement in the most socially vulnerable communities;
  • Ensuring that remediation plans submitted by brownfields developers are responsive to the potential risk of contamination from flooding;
  • Improving public access to information about potential chemical hazards; and
  • Ensuring that facilities comply with hazardous chemical reporting requirements.”

CPR adds, “Lawmakers should establish and fund programs creating siting, construction, and monitoring standards for above-ground hazardous chemical storage tanks and other unregulated chemical facilities exposed to extreme weather and flood risks.”

Drinking and wastewater

Drinking and wastewater systems typically see initial storm damages due to loss of power.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the damages “included loss of electric power to pump, process, and treat raw water supply and wastewater,” according to EveryCRSReport.com. “Initially following the storms, some plants were able to operate temporarily on backup generators, so long as fuel was available. In addition, flooding and structural damage disabled services in a number of locations, including New Orleans.”

Reports of damage from Hurricane Ida included damage to water and sewage lines from downed trees, which raised concerns about safe drinking water and sewage pollution. Gccapitalideas.com says, “As of Monday, August 30 (2021), 80 of the 84 sewer pumping stations had lost power. Officials in Jefferson Parish asked residents to conserve water to prevent sewage system backups.… Drinking water shortages are common throughout the area, with more than 441,000 people … without water service in 17 parishes, and more than 319,000 … under boil-water advisories, according to federal officials.”

In a survey conducted by the University of Connecticut for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), water and wastewater managers were asked how they have been impacted by extreme weather events and what steps they have taken to improve resiliency at their facilities.

Respondents indicated 68.6% experienced a loss of power, 57% were impacted by flooding, 51.2% were forced to bypass wastestreams from treatment facility equipment, and 26.7% lost access to their facility due to an extreme weather event.

Resilience planning tips for water and wastewater systems include the following:

  • Preserve capital to upgrade equipment and fund emergency repairs.
  • Modernize systems, including pressure systems, to detect blockages.
  • Install remote monitoring equipment.
  • Leave personnel at the facility during extreme weather events.
  • Conduct additional training.
  • Install replacement generators above high-water marks from previous flooding.
  • Create corporate cultures of adaptability and continuous improvement.
  • Include more diverse systems and adaptive changes, both permanent and temporary.
  • Monitor and track the effectiveness of changes and response measures.

Infrastructure

President Joseph R. Biden toured neighborhoods impacted by Hurricane Ida in Louisiana on September 3, 2021, and in New York and New Jersey on September 7, 2021.

“Biden has called extreme storms and wildfires burning in the West a reminder that climate change is here, and he urged Congress to pass his infrastructure bill, which contains measures to address it,” reports VOA News.

On August 7, 2021, a $1 trillion infrastructure plan was approved by the Senate in a 69–30 vote, showing a rare bipartisan move to deliver the beginning of Biden’s climate change agenda.

“The overwhelming tally provided fresh momentum for the first phase of Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ priorities, now heading to the House,” says AP News. “A sizable number of lawmakers showed they were willing to set aside partisan pressures, at least for a moment, eager to send billions to their states for rebuilding roads, broadband internet, water pipes and the public works systems that underpin much of American life.”

The plan also includes funding for rebuilding the nation’s electrical grid, hurricane protection, home and business weatherization, and ecosystem restoration, including addressing coastal erosion.

U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, R-La., has drawn heavy criticism for crossing party lines in support of the bill before Hurricane Ida. Cassidy is also credited with helping to negotiate the bill.

Opponents of the bill include U.S. Representative Mike Johnson, R-La.

“I will not support the so-called ‘infrastructure’ bill because only a fraction of its $1.2 trillion price tag will actually be spent on infrastructure, while the vast balance will go to unrelated so-called ‘green energy’ projects and increased deficit spending that will hurt Louisiana,” Johnson says, according to an August 10, 2021, AP News article.

Expect the unexpected—the new normal

Based on history, immediate reaction to devastation from extreme weather events is for leaders, industry, and the public to be supportive of resilience measures.

“I could never welcome something that brings about the kind of destruction that we’ve had,” says Anthony Broccoli, co-director of the Rutgers Climate Institute, in NJ Spotlight News. “Is it a teachable moment? Perhaps, although my impression over the years in the aftermath of incidents like this is that people are so focused on dealing with the immediate problems that it’s not clear to me that it really is a teachable moment.”

Broccoli adds that he hopes people are beginning to see the patterns and understand that preparing for climate change “will require huge changes in infrastructure, land use and population patterns in coming decades.”

Some experts say infrastructure changes are not enough and advise policymakers to begin to advocate a population retreat from flood-prone areas.

Mother Nature continues to show the world that we cannot begin to imagine worst-case scenarios based on past events. The key is to expect the unexpected and prepare for increased severe weather events.