Hurricane Sandy: Water Quality Issues are One of East Coast’s Biggest Scare this Halloween

October 31st, 2012

With the recent arrival of Hurricane Sandy on the east coast of the US, millions of Americans are now beginning to understand how natural disasters can severely impact their daily lives. Drinking water supplies were some of the first supplies to be completely depleted from the stores when the public was scrambling to prepare for this “storm of the century”. It seems almost ironic that despite the fact that in a region being inundated with water through rainfall and storm surge, hurricanes have an enormous impact on not only water quality but availability as well.


Empty shelves in the water bottle aisle in an Ocean City, NJ grocery store, October 27, 2012.

We typically associate high winds and heavy rainfall with hurricanes. This extremely heavy rainfall overwhelms underground pipes, streets, and drains that normally carry away storm water leaving behind contaminated standing water. In combined sewer systems that collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater, the flooding will result in untreated sewage overflowing into local water bodies and contaminating local drinking water supplies. Wells also risk contamination from malfunctioning septic tanks leaking sewage and runoff contaminated with surface chemicals soaking into the ground. Currently, residents of many of the states affected by Hurricane Sandy are encouraged to disinfect their wells prior to use for these reasons.

Power Outages

The lack of electricity can also lead to contaminated water and low water availability. Municipal water systems often use pumps to move water and sewage through force mains to the treatment plants. If these pumps operate on electricity, they will be disabled in a power outage which can cause sewage backups and overflows. Many municipal water districts now have back-up generators but whenever generators are the sole power source, water conservation is required. For example, water suppliers like New Jersey American Water are currently asking customers to discontinue non-essential water usage for bathing, watering, and cleaning until further notice.

Rural areas usually rely on electricity to pump water in the home and may experience water shortages during a power outage. Most drinking water wells have electric pumps that will not work without electricity. If the power outage is extended for a longer period of time, water will stagnate and sediment will likely settle in the well and distribution lines. When the power is restored, the well water may be discolored due to the sediment and, while it is usually not harmful, the well may require disinfection to eliminate any disease-causing bacteria or other pathogens.

Solution: Prepare in Advance

Unfortunately, many of the current victims of Hurricane Sandy must either temporarily relocate or rely on relief workers for their water. It is best to prepare in advance for a natural disaster in order to avoid being in a situation where water is either contaminated, in limited supply, or altogether unavailable. It will also help to avoid fighting over the last container of water at a packed grocery store the day before the storm is predicted to arrive. FEMA and CDC recommend storing at least a three-day supply of water, enough for at least one gallon per person per day. See our blog about emergency water storage for more information. It is also a good idea to stockpile a portable water filter. Many of these filters now have the capability to remove contaminants like bacteria, heavy metals, and other potentially harmful pollutants, making water from any source drinkable. These filters can substitute storing water or can serve as a back-up if the water supplies are depleted.

Hurricane Sandy is a good example of how a natural disaster can limit the basic necessities that we take for granted. It is important for everyone to learn from this event and be better prepared.


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