Like many living on the East Coast, I’ve experienced extreme flooding during and after severe rain events this year. But even with my own frightening experiences, I was left speechless after reading the story of a couple sheltering in their attic during Hurricane Sally as floodwaters contaminated by sewage filled their home.
This couple, 76-year-old Elaine and 84-year-old Jack Hulgan, from just north of Pensacola, Fla. are no strangers to hurricanes. As news of Sally arrived, they moved books and photos, even their lawnmower, to higher places. And thank goodness they did, because it wasn’t just rainwater that flooded their house. A mix of rain, water from the nearby 11 Mile Creek, and sewage overflows seeped under their front door.
Fortunately, the couple was able to hail passing rescuers and were taken to safety.
Despite the fact that Hurricane Sally’s severity took many Gulf Coast residents by surprise, the weather they encountered was no anomaly. Ferocious storms and severe floods, such as Hurricane Isaias, Laura and now Sally, are occurring more frequently. By mid-September 2020, this hurricane season has become so prolific that it’s already jumped into Greek-letter storms after exhausting the alphabet. This is especially troubling because there are still two-and-a-half months remaining in the season. Along with the threat to life and personal property, this onslaught is exceptionally worrying because this region doesn’t have the water infrastructure to withstand these storm events.
With heavy rains flowing over impervious surfaces, like parking lots or roads will swell waterways, the result will be catastrophic flooding. This, of course, produces immediate danger. But it also creates such longer-term public health threats as water contaminated by fecal matter from polluted stormwater runoff or overflowing sewage. Dirty water can lead to health problems, including gastrointestinal illness, eye or ear infections, and respiratory disease.
The Hulgans trapped in their attic as fetid water rose around them is an example of what these storms can do. Beyond that, contaminated flood water drains from our neighborhoods to waterways and beaches where people swim, surf and play.
Even without these storms, we already know how bad the effects of polluted water can be. Every year an estimated 57 million cases of recreational waterborne illnesses affect swimmers nationwide. With leaking sewage systems, sewer overflows, pet and wildlife waste on the ground near waterways, and severe storms on the rise, the numbers of people falling ill from contact with contaminated water is bound to increase.
While Congress enacted the Clean Water Act to make water safe nearly 50 years ago, we are still grappling with systems that don’t adequately reduce and prevent pollution. It’s unacceptable that as storms approach, we are forced to wonder whether rising waterways will contain fecal matter bacteria is on my list of concerns.
Thankfully, there are solutions. Natural and green infrastructure like rain barrels, permeable pavement and restored wetlands can be especially helpful when storms bring heavy rainfall. These tools help trap rainwater, preventing it from causing runoff pollution. They also protect from overburdening sewage systems that are not designed to manage excessive stormwater. By investing in our water infrastructure now, future storms will be less likely to cause harmful contamination.
Some leaders recognize what must be done. In August, the U.S. House approved more than $11 billion in new funding for water infrastructure. This monumental investment would greatly bolster our efforts to prevent water pollution. Now it is up to the U.S. Senate to take action and address our need for clean water funding. As the number of severe storm events rises, let’s invest in clean water so we can be sure that we can be better prepared for all that the future may bring.