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In Sandy's Wake.... What's in Those Flood Waters?

Larry Levine

Posted November 12, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment

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Superstorm Sandy absolutely battered the New York/New Jersey region two weeks ago.  I count myself among the extremely lucky ones – my neighborhood in Brooklyn never lost power, and had little visible damage. 

So many others here were much less fortunate: millions lost power for days or more amid freezing temperatures (and tens of thousands are still without power); hundreds of thousands displaced, including many who have lost their homes entirely; and, most tragic of all, over 150 deaths in the U.S. and the Caribbean, including scores in the New York metro area.

Water, of course, is at the center of the story.  The record-setting “storm surge” caused the worst damage, as ocean water rose more than a dozen feet above normal sea level, swamping low-lying coastal areas. 

But the affected communities are finding that there’s much more in that sea water than salt.  For example:

  • As sewage treatment plants failed, hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage poured into our waterways in both New York and New Jersey, with much of it backing up into streets and basements as well.  New York City restored at least partial sewage treatment capabilities at nearly all of its facilities within a couple of days, but in New Jersey sewage has continued to flow directly into the harbor. (It doesn’t take a massive storm, by the way, to trigger sewage spills that foul beaches and waterways in our region – ordinary rain events do so as well, causing tens of billions of gallons of sewage overflows each year.  Long-term investments in our infrastructure are needed to address this chronic problem.)    
  • Along notoriously polluted waterways like Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal, toxic chemicals rose up along with floodwaters into adjacent neighborhoods.
  • In New Jersey, flooding triggered multiple oil spills into the Arthur Kill, the narrow waterway that separates Staten Island from New Jersey.
  • Various hazardous chemicals from basements and businesses mixed with floodwaters throughout the region, fouling buildings and streets even after the waters receded.  

Residents and businesses cleaning up their properties should take care to avoid direct exposure to contaminants left behind by floodwaters.  Raw sewage contains bacteria, viruses, and other disease-causing organisms that cause stomach flu, pinkeye, respiratory infection, and ear and skin infections. For senior citizens, small children and people with weak immune systems, the results can be extremely serious, even fatal.

As we assess the totality of the storm’s damage and make plans to rebuild, we must learn from our experience with Sandy.  We’ll need to find ways to protect vulnerable sewer and wastewater infrastructure, as well as industrial facilities that handle oil and other hazardous materials.  As my colleague Ben Chou highlighted in a recent NY Times online forum, this can include not only highly-engineered solutions, but also a focus on protecting and restoring nature’s own storm surge buffers, which have been degraded by human activity, such as the marshes of Jamaica Bay.   

We also need to clean up toxic chemicals that have accumulated for a century at the bottom of urban waterways, before they overflow their banks again. 

And, of course, we also need to treat the causes (extreme weather and climate change fueled by carbon pollution), not only the symptoms. 

Let this storm be a wake up call -- both to increase our resilience against damage from future storms, and to take action to prevent climate change from contributing to even more extreme weather.

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Comments

Alexander HolsteinsonNov 12 2012 02:17 PM

Living in the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean we are battered almost every year with tropical storms and large hurricanes (up to CAT 5) so watching all these press made SUPERSTORM Sandy (barely a Cat 1 hurricane) makes no scientific sense. The only thing that Sandy demonstrated was how poorly were the Northeastern states prepare against hurricanes given their low incidence.

A real superstorm for NY and NJ would have been a CAT 5 Sandy (which could happen one of these seasons) and the story would have been total destruction with thousands of lives and trillions lost.

Alicia WNov 12 2012 02:18 PM

I send my deepest condolences to those affected by Hurricane Sandy. What are we going to do 'bout these natural disaters, huh?

cooper vNov 12 2012 02:20 PM

This blog post pointed out the problems with our infrastructure that need to be addressed. With every passing year we are facing more health hazards from these storms. This is not only dangerous but it makes the tri-state area less attractive for new people.

Also, just in the past month we've had a hurricane, earthquake, and snowstorm. Because of this I also believe we need to address climate change.

JeanMarie VNov 12 2012 02:22 PM

My heart goes out to the people who are affected by Hurricane Sandy. I hope they can find the Jersey Shore before summer!

Kenzi DNov 12 2012 03:57 PM

My thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by Hurricane Sandy. Sandy caused an immense amount of devastation but with that a lot of help and support worldwide. I hope everything can go back to the way it was.

Simona VNov 12 2012 07:20 PM

I think it is very sad that so many lives were taken away because of this storm. I think in the future, if something like this will happen, that people take extra precautions especially with the sewers. And in the future people should try and make themselves more eco-friendly even if it is in the smallest way because even that can help alot and can try to help calm down the weather for the future.

Blake DNov 12 2012 09:54 PM

It is so sad what has happened to so many individuals in the Wake and Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Firstly, it is important that those who are struggling get help and those near contaminated waters are informed. As mentioned, the infrastructure needs to be updated to prevent the leakage of sewage. Hopefully those without power get it back soon and those displaced are aided in getting a new home.

Ben HernandezNov 13 2012 02:24 PM

For those in the NY/NJ/CT areas that are still without power as of now, I hope they all get their power back soon. Luckily, I got my power back and I'm glad everything is back to normal at least for me.

Eric ChenNov 13 2012 02:33 PM

New Jersey had many trees that were down and it had knocked over power lines but many volunteers had brought chainsaws to cut down the fallen trees.

Kate Todero Nov 14 2012 03:23 PM

I was also one of the lucky ones. I had no damage done to my house (besides the lost of power for 2 weeks) and my family is safe. I can relate to the people who had no power although i had a generator so i was better off than some. Although having a generator is great the problem was that the gas lines were extremely long. Sometimes it would take my dad 3 hours to get gas! Those who still have no power the only advice i can give you is be patient and try and not be mad at the power company. This whole storm has been so upsetting and i hope that everyone who lived at the Jersey Shore is ok!

Taylor DeckenbachNov 16 2012 02:02 PM

My family suffered a little bit of damage with a tree falling on our greenhouse. Other than that we only lost power for a week. The shore is wreck and its a shame about all the damage that was done. With help from the country restoring the east coast will not be that much of a challenge.

Drew CovartNov 16 2012 02:17 PM

I hope that every one gets their power back in new york

Eric ChenNov 16 2012 02:22 PM

The tri-state area got hit really bad from hurricane sandy. Hurricane Sandy was the third most expensive storm. Trees had fallen and had knocked down many power lines. We had 2 weeks off of school. Brooklyn was 8 feet under water. Many transportation system did not run. It left people out of their jobs for at least a week. We are still on our road to recovery.

Theo LorandNov 16 2012 02:35 PM


I am really sad for the people who are the mostaffected by Hurricane Sandy. I hope they can find the Jersey Shore before summer!

Fahad SiddiquiNov 20 2012 02:32 PM

This is very sad. My thoughts and prayers are out for everyone who has been killed or injured or even lost their home. I, myself, consider myself lucky even though I lost power for four days. The reason is because it could have been so much worse. For example, the people by the Jersey shore had it much worse than us. I can't do anything but thank God that nothing happened to my families besides losing power.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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