Is Your Water Safe After a Hurricane?
With wind speeds up to 150 miles per hour, hurricanes blow over almost anything in their path, with short and long-term consequences for your drinking water.
If you live in a hurricane-prone area, you know what the aftermath looks like — water can flood city streets and houses, and often looks opaque and dirty from all the sediment the hurricane swept up in its path. Your water may look dirty, but what does a hurricane really mean for water quality at the tap?
Hurricanes, and the flooding that they cause, can affect both well-water and municipal water supplies. Flooding can disrupt a city’s water supplies by overwhelming water treatment facilities. As water moves through the landscape, it can pick up bacteria, sewage, agricultural or industrial waste, and chemicals, all of which can harm humans if ingested.
Hurricanes can also flood rivers with nutrients, causing algal blooms that make water treatment harder, more expensive, and potentially dangerous to your health especially if you’re on a private well.
Will Hurricanes Affect Your Drinking Water?
Flooding from hurricane weather primarily impacts sewage systems and coastal areas. Contaminants can find their way into drinking water supplies, too, so taking precautions can help ensure safety.
Water contaminants come in many forms, depending on the source:
- Physical (like trash and debris, or sediment from erosion)
- Pathogenic (often from sewage or animal waste)
- Chemical (which can come from industry, agriculture, etc.)
If your water comes from a private well, you should hold off drinking it until the flooding has subsided. Even then, testing your well water to check for contaminants is particularly important, as any contaminants in the floodwater are likely to infiltrate well water. Testing will help decide what treatment is necessary given the new matrix of contaminants.
If your water comes from the city, your water treatment plant will be working to identify and remove contaminants. As we have discussed elsewhere, testing your city water may still be the best course of action.
Did Hurricane Florence Affect Water Quality?
In short, yes.
Before the storm hit, many were concerned about Duke Energy’s coal ash disposal beds overflowing into drinking water supplies. This fear was based on precedent, as these ash sites overflowed before in 2014 and 2016. The sites are set to be closed down by 2029, but the risk is still present.
When Florence hit, the winds swept up this ash and dumped it in a nearby lake. Coal ash comes from burning coal, and it's chock-full of contaminants like heavy metals (see SimpleWater’s nationwide map of coal ash sites). There are no exact numbers as to how much ash was swept away, but Duke estimated it to be over 2,000 cubic yards–enough to fill an olympic swimming pool!
Another source of contamination came from North Carolina’s many hog farms, which were flooded by Florence. The feces and urine from these farms are usually kept in sealed lagoons, where the waste is treated and used as fertilizer.
As of September 25th, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality reported four lagoons had been damaged and 13 had enough water to have contents overflow. This fecal contamination is risky not only because of its impact on short term health, but because hog farms are known as “hot zones” for antibiotic resistant bacteria.
As we saw earlier this year with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, much of the damage from hurricanes usually becomes apparent in its aftermath — as do the long-term effects on water quality.
How Can You Protect Yourself From Contamination After Hurricanes?
Know the Signs – If They Exist!
Your experience of water contamination will be different based on what kind of contaminants are in your water.
Bacteria, like E. coli , can cause stomach issues and diarrhea, while the presence of corrosive metals or hydrogen sulfide can cause the water to smell (check out our Stinky Odor Guide). Early symptoms of acute toxicity from drinking water contaminated with bacteria can include stomach and intestinal problems and headaches — symptoms that look a lot like the flu.
Other contaminants–like nitrates and nitrites–are odorless, tasteless, and invisible. If you rely on a private well, and live near agricultural land, a hurricane may lead to higher flushing of unnoticed fertilizers and pesticides into your water source.
Test Before You Treat
At Simple Water, we always advocate testing before treating so that you know what’s the best course of action for your water quality.
If you do identify a bacterial contaminant, boiling water for 1 minute (or 3 minutes at elevation) to destroy waterborne pathogens or installing using proper treatment systems are recommended strategies after a hurricane.
While generally good advice, boiling water isn’t always the proper course of action — it kills bacteria, but it will also concentrate any heavy metals present. That means you could be drinking water with more toxic metals than if you hadn't boiled the water. The best way to make sure you’re treating your water properly is to identify what’s in it.
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/42828604840/