What Was Hurricane Katrina’s Impact on the Environment?

The worst hurricane to ever hit the United States is still being felt today.

[social_buttons]It’s been almost 5 years since the deadliest hurricane and most expensive natural disaster in US history made landfall, and scientists are still discovering its affects. Scientists studying the hurricanes impact have shown the ecological impact and human health risks as a result of the exposed chemical containments.

According to the study, published in a special edition of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Hurricane Katrina caused significant ecological damage by altering coastal chemistry and habitat.

“While evidence suggests that hurricanes may increase in intensity, resulting in even greater economic damage in the future, social and cultural factors are also important aspects to consider for the future impact of hurricanes,” said Dr. Bill Benson of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). “It is important that higher priority is given to understanding social factors and demographic patterns pertaining to continued development along our nation’s coastline.”

The research published showed that chemical concentrations varied across coastal areas. However, within New Orleans, the most publicly recognizable casualty of Katrina, concentrations of lead, arsenic and other chemicals were found to be elevated, specifically in those areas that are the most disadvantaged following the retreat of Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. George Cobb of Texas Tech University led a team to study 128 sampling sites from across New Orleans, combining their findings with data sets generated by Dr. Burton Suedel and co-workers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to create maps that detailed the chemical distribution across New Orleans.

The researchers found elevated concentrations of arsenic and lead throughout New Orleans, with the highest concentrations observed in soils located in the poorer sections of the city. Lead concentrations were found to exceed the regulatory threshold for safety, with the highest concentrations being found in the oldest parts of the city.

The implications are staggering. Lead can be extremely dangerous, especially to children, and considering the amount of people returning to their homes with such elevated concentrations, concern is natural. Additionally, airborne containments were released into the area as a result of the numerous demolition projects in the following cleanup operation.

“Our evaluation of contaminants in New Orleans was critical in determining whether storm surges and resultant flooding altered chemical concentrations or distribution,” concluded Cobb. “Our results show how long-term human health consequences in New Orleans are difficult to attribute to chemical deposition or redistribution by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, yet reveal how chemical contamination is a historical problem for old cites in the U.S. Our results and the data from coastal ecosystems reveal the value of long-term monitoring programs to establish baseline concentrations and distributions of contaminants in the environment.”

And though discoveries of elevated concentrations of arsenic in surface soils and flood sediments can be directly related to flooding caused by the hurricane, the increased levels of lead are not necessarily hurricane related, and may have posed a threat to residents for years prior to Hurricane Katrina.

Source: Wiley-Blackwell

Image Source: US Coast Guard, Petty Officer 2nd Class NyxoLyno Cangemi

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