Science & Technology

The Floodwaters in Florida Are Toxic and Dangerous, Officials Warn

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In this aerial view, flooded homes are shown after Hurricane Ian moved through the Gulf Coast of Florida on September 29, 2022 in Port Charlotte, Florida.

In this aerial view, flooded homes are shown after Hurricane Ian moved through the Gulf Coast of Florida on September 29, 2022 in Port Charlotte, Florida.
Photo: Win McNamee (Getty Images)

When Hurricane Ian made landfall over Florida as a category 4 storm last week, it left behind a trail of destruction that killed dozens of people amid flash floods, severely damaged homes, and inundated cars and streets. The devastation has also triggered new environmental concerns: serious leaks of chemicals, sewage, and oil.

As of Tuesday morning, the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center had processed 25 incident reports related to the hurricane, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Some of the spills are coming from gasoline storage. On Sunday, a storage tank in Acadia filled with 400 gallons of gasoline spilled its contents into the local Peace River.

Other oil spills in Florida waterways are coming from sunken vessels that were damaged by storm surge, releasing gasoline into the water, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Personal boats that were once docked in marinas all over Florida have also released gasoline after being damaged by storm surges. Some of the gasoline in the water has come from cars that were washed away by the floodwaters. Felled trees and other plants that were uprooted are now decomposing in floodwaters, the Washington Post reported.

Water treatment chemicals have also been spilled into Florida’s waterways as a result of storm damage. A Polk County-operated water treatment facility off U.S. Highway 27 reported that 2,300 gallons of sodium hypochlorite leaked out of the facility during the storm last week, according to the Tampa Bay Times. That chemical is a strong disinfectant and can cause burns, blistering, and inflammation if it comes in contact with human skin. It can also cause severe eye damage, according to the CDC.

The flooding and ensuing infrastructural damage have also released sewage into some of the state’s floodwaters and waterways. Brevard County saw several sewage spills during and after the hurricane. More than 357,000 gallons of waste flowed up from manhole covers in the area and into the county’s beaches, Florida Today reported. On top of that, 7.2 million gallons of treated sewage were released into the Indian River Lagoon last week.

Post-storm runoff in Florida, September 30, 2022.

A press release from the Florida Department of Health in Flagler County urged people to take extra precautions if they are near or have come in contact with post-storm floodwaters. “Skin contact with flood waters may pose a serious health risk when waters become contaminated with bacteria and viruses,” the release explained. Florida residents were also told to wash their skin and possessions with soap if they’ve come in contact with the floodwaters. People with open wounds exposed to floodwaters or waterways contaminated by sewage spills were especially encouraged to receive a tetanus vaccine.

Despite those concerns, images and photos from last week show people wading in floodwaters, trying to salvage their belongings or help others evacuate the area. Depending on the chemical or pollutant in the water, people would experience skin rashes and inflammation. “Unless you absolutely have to be in the water, it’s not a good time to be in there,” Todd Osborne, a University of Florida biochemist, told the Washington Post.

The European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite captured some of the water pollution. Images showed plumes of dirty water off the coastline near Fort Myers, Florida flowing out towards the Gulf late last week. Fort Myers was one of the heavily affected areas and experienced storm surge of more than 6 feet during the hurricane. Video from the International Space Station also shows large amounts of runoff from around Key West.

Florida is still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Ian. As of earlier this week, emergency workers were going door to door in hopes of locating as many people as possible. More than 217,000 customers in the state remain without power, according to PowerOutage.us.



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