Environmental issues following Hurricane Sandy

The Aftermath: The Environmental Impact of Super Storm Sandy

The Aftermath The Environmental Impact of Super Storm SandyThe Aftermath: The Environmental Impact of Super Storm Sandy

Last October, Super Storm Sandy decimated parts of the East Coast, and was responsible for hundreds of deaths, destroyed homes and displaced residents, shuttered businesses, downed power lines, and broke water mains. What’s more, nearly a year later, individuals are still reeling from Sandy, with many waiting to rebuild while government agencies and insurance companies work to get the areas hard hit back to “normal”. There have also been setbacks, of course, with the most recent a fire that destroyed recently rebuilt businesses on the very same boardwalk on the Jersey Shore that Sandy gutted a year ago. It turns out that the fire was caused by failed electrical equipment and wiring under the boardwalk and subfloor, compromised by Sandy floodwaters.

Unfortunately, even more trouble may lie beneath the floodwaters and storm surges brought about by Sandy. Environmentalists and public health officials are concerned about several issues in the aftermath of Sandy, including outdoor air and water pollution and the potential long-term impact on those that came into contact with contaminants.

Air Quality & Mold

Outdoor air quality, for example, is an issue after a flooding event when sediment deposited by floodwaters on city streets and sidewalks dries and is kicked up by vehicles and foot traffic. Damaged buildings are demolished, and debris is stacked on sidewalks, trucked away, and sometimes burned. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December of last year, two months after the storm, set up three additional monitoring stations in areas hardest hit by Sandy to measure air quality. Those monitors showed measurements of fine particulate matter exceeding the EPA’s recommended 24-hour standard in several locations, including Lower Manhattan, but fortunately, only for a few days.

However, what about those contractors and individuals who came into contact with mold as a result of the flooding? According to environmentalists, of the long-term health threats posed by Sandy, the most significant is mold growth in homes that were not properly remediated after flooding. Indoor exposure to mold has been linked to upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people, and with exacerbation of symptoms in people with asthma.To get rid of mold in a flooded house, all wet furnishings and building materials composed in whole or in part of cellulose fiber—including wood flooring and wallboard—must be demolished and removed from the house. The wood framing must be scrubbed free of mold with a detergent solution and dried using dehumidifiers and blowers before reconstruction begins. Immediately following the storm, contractors and volunteers descended on the flood zones to offer their services in demolition and mold remediation. Most were instructed to use respirators when working in these spaces. But what about those that didn’t follow the recommendation? Moreover, most likely not all the mold was removed during these remediation efforts, which could present problems down the road.

According to one company that worked on homes affected by Sandy, “virtually every one of the 200 flood-damaged homes it examined prior to remediation had substantial levels of visible mold growth on the underlying structural wood components (studs/sills), which was revealed when the wet wallboard was removed. Similarly, mold growth on the top and bottom sides of subflooring and on the underlying structural floor joists is a ubiquitous problem. Even if the mold is cleaned from the accessible surfaces, that means some moldy material is bound to remain.”

In fact in New Jersey, a team of environmental health experts from several organizations, including Rutgers University, is conducting ongoing measurements of mold in homes hit by Sandy. They have been sampling mold levels in storm-damaged houses before, during, and after remediation to determine the effectiveness of cleanup procedures.

Untreated Sewage, Contaminated Water

In our previous blog, we spoke about the issue of contaminated water from raw sewage. According to Climate Central, six months after Sandy, data from the eight hardest hit states shows that 11 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage flowed into rivers, bays, canals, and in some cases, city streets, largely as a result of record storm-surge flooding that swamped the region’s major sewage treatment facilities. What’s more, Climate Central’s analysis of the sewage-spill data provided by state agencies and individual treatment plant operators indicates that:

•One third of the overflow (3.45 billion gallons) was essentially untreated raw sewage. The remainder (7.45 billon gallons) was partially treated, meaning that it received at least some level of filtration and, perhaps, chlorination.
•94 percent of the spilled sewage, well over 10 billion gallons, was the result of some form of damage caused by coastal flooding. In some cases, Sandy’s storm surge simply flooded treatment plants and pumping stations, while in other cases a combination of power outages and flood conditions shuttered facilities or caused major diversions of sewage into receiving waters.
•93 percent of the volume of sewage overflows took place in New York (47 percent) and New Jersey (46 percent). Eighteen of the 20 largest spills ended up in New York and New Jersey waters, as did the four individual sewage overflows of more than 1 billion gallons each; two each from New York and New Jersey.

The long-term effects of untreated sewage on the environment and humans are still unknown and need to be calculated and studied


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