Environmental Concerns In The Wake Of A Hurricane

Property damage after a hurricane and the resulting flooding can go beyond repairing physical structures.

This year’s Atlantic hurricane season has been among the most active in recent history, bringing with it a rapid succession of storms and causing unprecedented damage to residential/commercial properties and entire communities. Even after rainfall subsides and floodwaters recede, lingering environmental issues can remain.

Michael Novak, President, Atlantic Environmental Solutions Inc. (AESI)

In the following interview, Michael Novak, president of Hoboken, NJ-based Atlantic Environmental Solutions Inc. (AESI) discusses identifying and addressing environmental issues that may impact industrial buildings and residential properties in the wake of a hurricane or flood event.

Q: How does flooding impact a building’s indoor air quality (IAQ)?

A: Standing water is a breeding ground for mold and bacteria, which grow rather quickly. Failure to properly remove contaminated materials, and reduce moisture and humidity can pose a serious health and safety risk to anyone exposed to that environment. Quick action is key as it reduces the scope and cost of the project, and time it takes to remediate. When a property owner calls us about flood damage, we perform a site inspection and testing, and if mold is discovered a remediation program is designed, which involves removing all mold-damaged materials (drywall, wood, carpet, flooring, etc.) and setting up a containment area where all work is performed to minimize mold spores being released into the air. Once the site is cleaned and air quality passes inspection, we help the property owner with their rebuilding efforts.

Loss of business in the aftermath of a flood can be particularly devastating to retailers and timely remediation is invaluable here as well. A national retailer recently awarded AESI an IAQ and mold evaluation survey for 50 of its stores in Puerto Rico impacted by hurricane damage.

Q: What impact does flooding have on underground/aboveground storage tanks?

A: Storage tanks can become inundated or dislodged by flood waters. As a result of this damage, a tank’s contents can be released into the environment causing soil and groundwater contamination. AESI was involved with a project where following a flood an aboveground tank became dislodged and spilled a significant amount of oil throughout the property. After testing and initial reconnaissance, we remediated the site by excavating, removing the effected soil and ground water, and performing post-excavation testing to ensure no further action was required. It’s important to note that in many locations, including New Jersey and New York, these types of spills also need to be reported to the state.

Environmental Concerns in the Wake of a Hurricane
Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard move through flooded Houston streets as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey continue to rise. (Photo: U.S. Army/1st Lt. Zachary West)

Q: Can flood waters cause environmental damage to entire neighborhoods?

A: Absolutely. We saw this first hand in 2012 in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy. A neighborhood in Hudson County experienced considerable flooding, and when the water receded, it left behind an oily mess on homes, garages, etc., AESI was brought in to help the city with reconnaissance and remediation including soil and air sampling, cleanup activities, and other related services. We determined the source of this oil spill was superficial and not ongoing; given the magnitude and chaos of this storm, the source was never really known. AESI evaluated 1,500 homes impacted by Super Storm Sandy including providing these valuable Licensed Site Remediation Professional (LSRP) services for that city.

Q: Are there other environmental issues that can impact a property following a flood?

A: Many times, asbestos abatement is part of restoring a business, or home, after a flood. When water damages a property, insulation and other building materials become exposed. Building materials in many homes/businesses constructed before the early 1980s contain asbestos; paint in buildings constructed prior to 1978 may contain lead. Both are dangerous to occupants if not remediated correctly. Following a flood event, we test building materials for asbestos and if any is identified we quantify those materials, perform all the necessary permitting (local, state and federal), and remove contaminated materials with an asbestos abatement in accordance with all necessary regulations. In these scenarios the environmental issues existed long before the flood, and flood damage is what brings these issues to the forefront.

Q: How essential is prompt action by a property owner following flood damage?

A: Quite simply, it saves the property owner time and money, reduces liability, and lessens the potential impact on both human health and the environment. While it’s always better to address remediation issues as soon as possible, it’s never too late to lessen flood damage from both a regulatory and liability standpoint.

Atlantic Environmental Solutions, Inc. (AESI) is a full-service consulting firm that provides clients with a wide range of services to assist in complying with complex and ever-changing environmental laws and regulations.