Hurricane
September 21, 2018

The dangers from hurricanes don’t end when the winds die and the rain stops. For North Carolina residents living in areas with flooded hog farms and lagoons of animal waste, overloaded septic and well systems, and inundated coal ash pits, the environmental and health impacts of Hurricane Florence could be felt for years.

Sacoby Wilson, an associate professor of applied environmental health at UMD (the Maryland Institute of Applied Environmental Health) and an expert on environmental justice issues in the southeastern United States, says the destruction of Hurricane Florence is an example of “social and economic vulnerability intersecting with a regulatory gap.” He talked to Maryland Today this week about who is most at risk and how to prepare for the next storm.

MT: Who is in danger for the lingering environmental effects of hurricanes?

SW: A lot of these populations are invisible. They have limited political power. They have limited economic power. Many times, people who can’t get out of harm’s way may not have resources to go. They end up being stuck. They may have underlying health issues such as obesity, diabetes and asthma. We have to focus on the most vulnerable populations in preparedness and response. We have to make sure they have shelter, food and access to clean water.

How is their health endangered beyond the hurricane itself?

They are more than likely escaping through a toxic soup of human waste, animal waste and chemical waste. Once the water recedes, there is a sludge left that individuals may be exposed to. While escaping from floodwaters, you could get water in your mouth. You could immediately have some sort of gastrointestinal event as a result of exposure to E. coli, salmonella, Giardia, Cryptosporidium and antibiotic-resistant microbes. You have nitrates that can lead to “Blue Baby's” disease. You can have exposure to mercury, lead and arsenic, which can cause neurological problems, reproductive issues or cancer. The impacts will be magnified for children and elderly individuals.

What steps can be taken to prevent this?

Regulatory agencies must change how waste is managed at industrial animal operations such as large hog farms. A (hog waste) lagoon is basically a hole in the ground. These operations are either exempt from many regulations, or “right-to-farm” acts have diluted those laws. If they had better waste management technology, you wouldn’t have these problems on the back end after a hurricane such as Florence—another 1,000-year rain event—dropped 11 trillion gallons of rain.

What are the implications for Maryland?

We could have a similar crisis in the Chesapeake Bay if a slow-moving hurricane hit the chicken farm industry on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. You would have a lot of dry (chicken) litter become wet waste. If you have an event with runoff, you could have the same sort of toxic-soup scenario that occurred with Hurricane Florence. You are always going to have these geographic vulnerabilities if you have these operations in floodplains, in coastal areas. You could see this pattern happen over and over again, particularly if nothing is done on the industry side and if nothing is done by regulatory agencies to have these operations fully comply with the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Emergency Planning Right to Know Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. Climate change requires this sector to do more to protect their facilities in areas near sensitive rivers and streams and areas prone to flooding.

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Sacoby Wilson