The Environmental Impacts of Hurricanes

The Environmental Impacts of Hurricanes

Peak hurricane season is upon us. In fact, we just saw the damage and destruction that Hurricane Dorian caused in the Caribbean and on parts of East Coast recently. The main and immediate focus after a hurricane event is rescuing and responding to those in need of aid, and the impacts you see after a hurricane can be devastating. Homes, buildings, and infrastructure are damaged, often catastrophically, and those in the storm’s path are frequently without power, food, and water. What goes unnoticed and unreported initially within communities impacted is the environmental damage caused by these events. Days after Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast in 2017, it was reported that the superstorm had caused the release of nearly one million pounds of seven toxic compounds, including benzene, a carcinogenic substance, according to an analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Many hot-spot areas in the U.S. for hurricanes are populated with large-scale energy and chemical production facilities located in the coastal states of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Facilities located in these areas can be overcome by hurricanes with flooding, loss of power, and property damage. These effects can result in loss of containment events which release of toxic chemicals into the environment. Chemicals would then contaminate surface water, groundwater, and flow into local waterways resulting in threats to water supplies as well as fish and wildlife. Fires, which can start from system failures, exposed electrical equipment, and infrastructure damage, can release toxic fumes into the atmosphere resulting in air pollution and respiratory hazards to the surrounding public. Run-off from affected farmland can carry toxic pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides causing severe wide-spread damage to marine life. Hospitals, heavy manufacturing facilities, and gas stations are also high-risk areas for environmental pollution during a hurricane.

Not only can toxic chemicals be released from the facilities where they are used or manufactured, but they can also be released from everyday consumer items. Damaged boats, vehicles, tanks, and stray containers can release gasoline, oil, propane, anti-freeze, and a variety of other toxic chemicals into the environment.

Before the 2019 hurricane season began, the US EPA released an article intended to prepare the public by focusing on waste mitigation. That article explained how the public and operation facilities could prepare for a hurricane to protect not only the environment, but also first responders and potential victims. The US EPA encouraged the public to ensure drums, oil containers, propane tanks, paint cans, vessels and other possible chemical containing apparatus were properly stored and secured before a hurricane hit. With the early detection of hurricanes that we have today, the US EPA encourages facility owners and operators to start preparing days in advance to minimize effects. These preparations include safely storing and securing hazardous chemicals on or off site, shutting down certain operational processes, and ensuring emergency procedures are in place. The US EPA asserts that certain facilities have federal and state requirements they need to follow and have an obligation to prevent and minimize chemical releases, and to report releases in a timely manner. Having the necessary containment and protocols in place can prevent large releases and explosions.

Hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons continue to wreak havoc across the world and even show signs of growing in intensity each year according to the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL), which is affiliated with National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Trying to mitigate the environmental impacts after the hurricane has happened is extremely challenging. Meticulous preparation and working toward resilience are vital steps to take before disaster strikes.


Cody Dye, GSP

EHS Specialist