After the Storm

Industry responds to drinking water contamination concerns in wake of Hurricane Harvey

Industry responds to drinking water contamination concerns in wake of Hurricane

Pennsylvania National Guard Soldiers load bottled water onto a CH-47 Chinook helicopter Sept. 1 at Fort Indiantown Gap in preparation to depart for the Hurricane Harvey relief effort in Texas.

The storms may have passed, but for the residents of Texas and Florida recovering from hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the danger is far from over, especially when it comes to one crucial resource: drinking water. In the wakes of the storms, survivors are combatting not just potentially contaminated floodwaters, but also compromised drinking water treatment plants and inundated water wells.

Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Rockport, Texas, on Sept. 26, 2017, as a category 4 hurricane, making it the first major hurricane to hit the U.S. since 2005. Although the storm quickly lost intensity after making landfall, it stalled over southeast Texas, dropping more than 40 in. of rain in some areas before moving on to Louisiana. 

Drinking Water Dangers

The record-level rainfalls resulted in widespread flooding. While the water’s force presented the most immediate physical danger, those who come into contact with floodwaters also are at risk of waterborne illness. 

David Loveday, government affairs director for the Water Quality Assn. (WQA), listed E. coli as a top contaminant of concern. He noted that in addition to sewage, floodwaters are at risk of contamination from chemicals, especially with the prevalence of oil refineries in the Houston area. “Remember, the floodwaters will pick up every contaminant in the world,” Loveday said in an Aug. 30 WQA Radio podcast. 

The Texas Department of Health Services warned of the risk of contracting tetanus, which enters the body through open cuts or scrapes, recommending that residents update their tetanus boosters before attempting any flood cleanup. 

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, floodwaters also inundated drinking water treatment plants and private drinking water wells, affecting availability of safe drinking water for thousands. 

The storm resulted in hundreds of boil water alerts in Texas. As of Sept. 10, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality listed 136 community water systems still under boil water notices. (By that date, 145 boil water notices already had been rescinded.) Thirty-five additional systems were listed as inoperable, with some estimating restoration would take months. 

When it comes to boil water notices, “this is Texas, a lot of people [think], eh, it’s just water,” said Daina Grace, executive director of the Texas Water Quality Assn. (TWQA), whose hometown of Victoria, Texas, was hard-hit by Hurricane Harvey. “Especially in the Houston area, there are so many chemical plants and things, and even here in Victoria, when you have floods, you have no idea what’s in the water.”

Don McGhee, immediate past president of WQA, has a simple recommendation for those facing boil water alerts: Listen to your water provider. “Take those steps that you can take to ensure that your water is safe and pay attention to what your local water provider is saying, because they do a really good job at providing good, safe water to folks in the state of Texas,” he said in a Sept. 7 WQA Radio podcast. “We just have to make sure we do our part to just ensure that our own homes are safe.” 

Private well users may need to take some extra steps to ensure their water is safe to drink and avoid additional dangers. According to Charlene Bean, supervisor for the Water Systems Council’s wellcare hotline, the first hazard well owners will come across is risk of electrical shock. 

“A lot of people go in thinking that the water’s receded and then they think they can just flip on a switch and everything goes back to normal,” Bean said. Instead, she recommends well owners conduct a visual inspection, then call in a professional. In addition to ensuring the well equipment is working properly, the professional should test the well for potential contaminants, she said.

Water Industry Hurricane Response

As Hurricane Harvey approached, WQA mobilized its disaster response efforts, beginning with a member conference call. In response to member requests, the association expanded efforts to raise awareness of hurricane- and flooding-related water quality concerns for water professionals and the general public, providing regular updates on its Crisis Response blog, issuing press releases and making resources on flooding, water disinfection and boil alerts available on its website. 

According to Loveday, WQA also is leveraging its contacts in Washington, D.C., to work with Texas and Louisiana senators and representatives, and offer itself as a resource on drinking water safety and technology. 

In the aftermath of the storm, TWQA also worked to get drinking water information out to the public and its membership. With the help of WQA, TWQA provided information to its members on boil water alerts, safe drinking water and well disinfection. According to Grace, this information was sent even to dealers in areas not affected by the storm. “I think the information as far as taking the boil water notices [seriously] is critical,” she said. 

Dealerships and associations are working to get bottled water to the areas that need it most. According to Grace, Culligan of Houston was spared from the floods, and was able to begin packaging and shipping bottled water immediately after the storm. Many other local water dealerships experienced greater levels of damage, but Grace estimated most would be up and running again by mid-September.

Dealerships in other areas of the state also have answered the call to provide bottled water. Bob Boerner, president of Culligan Southwest Inc., based in San Antonio, said his dealership has been sending small-pack water to the affected region with the help of grocery chain H.E.B. “[H.E.B. has] been very good about donating their trucks lines and stuff, so we’ve been taking two pallets a day over to their warehouse on the east side, and then they take it where they’re most needed,” Boerner said. “I was hearing from someone [who] was driving back from the Houston area toward San Antonio that they had a Texas state trooper escort of the H.E.B. convoy headed over toward the Houston area the other day, so that’s a good thing too.” The dealership is working on producing “one-way” 4-gal bottles of water that can be sent to hurricane victims to use and recycle.

Preparing for Natural Disasters

WQA initiated similar efforts to raise awareness of water quality concerns for those in the Hurricane Irma’s predicted path in Florida, including a member phone call and press releases on preparation for and recovery from the storm. 

Grace realized the value in these types of advanced notifications when she finally was able to return to her office after Hurricane Harvey. She provided the same information on boil water alerts and water contamination TWQA sent out to its members to the other tenants in her office. One woman told Grace that she and her elderly mother had been drinking the tap water “like crazy” since the storm—even though the boil water alert in their town had been lifted just that day. The woman and her mother had been without power and phones, so they were unaware of the alert. 

“Notifying the people now [who] have been affected is important,” Grace said, but “we need to make sure to stay in touch with the press [so] we make sure we can keep this information visible to people so they know they need to plan ahead ... They need to make sure they have [the boil order] information ready, handy, and just assume that it’s there until they hear otherwise.”

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About the author

Kate Ferguson is editor-in-chief of WQP. Ferguson can be reached at [email protected] or 847.391.1007.