In Irma’s wake, toxins diffuse

Floodwaters have brought toxic waste into Florida coast communities

Brooke Gilbert, 15, hugs her father, Mike, as she returned to her grandparents’ Islamorada, Florida home in shambles.
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Eighty dead, millions of trees, structures and phone lines leveled and Florida’s worst power outage in history — Hurricane Irma was one of the strongest storms recorded over the Atlantic Ocean, displacing thousands of communities in the Caribbean island belt and coastal Florida while also slamming hazardous sites in the region.

In the path of Irma

May forecasts from the National Weather Service, which called for a wild 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, hit the bull’s-eye.

Acting FEMA administrator Robert Fenton Jr. called on families and businesses to be weather-ready during a news conference at the Takoma Park, Maryland Climate Prediction Center in May.

“When I look back at my twenty years some of the most costliest disasters have been hurricanes. In fact, I think in the history of FEMA, eight of the ten most costliest disasters have been hurricanes.”

Irma is this season’s latest storm that defies precedent. It is still dealing punishing blows to the nation’s Southeast, even as the system weakened to a rainstorm and fizzled off toward the heartland last week.

We have to think about the way we train our citizens and refocus these programs to give them life-saving skills.

The current head of FEMA, Brock Long, said the nation would be lucky if the $15 billion dollar emergency fund Congress allocated for Irma and Harvey lasted one month. He warns in July that America has “hazard amnesia.”

“I don’t believe we’ve built a true culture of preparedness within our citizens. I believe it has what I call hazard amnesia. We have to think about the way we train our citizens and refocus these programs to give them life-saving skills.”

The mammoth two-story surge in sea level prevised for coastal Florida in the wake of Irma never came. But water, sewer and cell tower services have been knocked out for over seven days in some communities along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Toxic waste: a Florida problem

Heavy equipment remediated a retired manufactured gas plant in High Point, North Carolina last year. The area, which is listed as a national, high-priority Superfund site, has soil contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a waste product of oil and gas production. PAH is a known carcinogen. Credit: North Carolina DENR
Maps A and B show, with black dots, Florida’s 77 Superfund sites slated for final, proposed, or deleted status, in 22 counties. Map A ranks Florida counties using the Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous ranking score (0-100). A higher score indicates more health and environmental hazards. Map B shows the surface water reservoirs in the state of Florida, which are particularly susceptible to hazards released into the environment. Credit: Journal of Statistics and Public Policy

Florida residents returned to assess the wreck to their homes. There, they faced other threats: bacteria and toxins.

The State of Florida has about fifty “Superfund” designated areas, sites identified nationwide by the Environmental Protection Agency that have known hazards in the soil.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said in a public statement that his agency has deployed about eighty personnel to secure at-risk chemical sites in the path of Irma. Pruitt, September 7th, on ABC News.

“We’re looking at many things right now: 80 Superfund sites that we’re monitoring right now, all the way from Miami to North Carolina. As you know, those Superfund sites sometimes have lead-related issues or other related concerns that can leak into water supplies.”

Hurricane Harvey, which dealt record-shattering rain and flooding to coastal Texas in late August, also struck superfund sites and tainted floodwaters.

There’s absolutely people who could have anticipated storms like this… Don’t tell me no one could have anticipated this.

Matt Dempsey is a data scientist based in Houston. He says the explosion at the Arkema-owned plant in Crosby, Texas was preventable.

“There’s a million different things they could have done to prevent this. The company goes out of their way to say, ‘There’s nothing we could have done, no one could have anticipated the — blah, blah, blah. That’s nonsense. There’s absolutely people who could have anticipated storms like this. If Hurricane Harvey had hit Houston first instead of Port Aransas, there could have been storm surges of 15 to 25 feet. Don’t tell me no one could have anticipated this.”

The staggering scale of damage and flood pollutants is stilled being revealed, now over two weeks since the mammoth hurricane made landfall as a category 4 storm. Estimates for clean up top many billions of dollars.

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