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Doctoral Students Conduct Major Sampling Effort Post-Hurricane Florence


Hurricane Florence was a powerful and long-lived Cape Verde hurricane that caused catastrophic damage in the Carolinas in September 2018, primarily as a result of freshwater flooding. The hurricane dropped over 35 inches of rain in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, becoming the wettest tropical cyclone recorded in the Carolinas. Originating from a strong tropical wave that emerged off the west coast of Africa, Florence caused an estimated 53 fatalities.

In Florence’s aftermath, PhD students Hannah Gray and Alexandra Lorentz, supported by a team of faculty and other students, conducted a major sampling effort to areas impacted by the flooding in North Carolina. They visited the areas as the rivers crested and again as the flooding began to subside. Brought together by the Yu/Chen donation and a directed research grant from the Center for A Livable Future, EHE was poised to respond to this disaster through a multi-disciplinary, multi-school project, which aimed to explore the impacts and health risks of major storm flooding events and the attendant microbial, chemical, and other environmental discharges from human waste, livestock manure, and industrial waste released into the Neuse and Cape Fear River watersheds.

The field team performed a rapid-response assessment of water contamination in flooded rivers in order to characterize the potential for increased human exposures of direct health relevance, interested in mobilization of multiple kinds of contaminants from different sources in extreme flood events.hannah-sampling

One year after Hurricane Florence, Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, and struck North Carolina. The initial impacts from Dorian occurred during the morning hours of September 5 when several tornadoes touched down in eastern North Carolina.
The most severe storm surge flooding occurred on Ocracoke Island where several people were trapped in their attics by flooding from the 4-to-7-foot storm surge, requiring rescue by boats. People were airlifted off the island to shelters on the mainland while food and water were brought in for residents on the island. North Carolina Highway 12 along Ocracoke Island suffered damage from flooding. 

More than 190,000 North Carolina homes lost power during the storm, and there were at least 45 confirmed deaths in the Bahamas resulting from Dorian. Tropical Storm Imelda, Hurricane Humberto and Tropical Depression Ten were all spinning in the Atlantic Basin on Tuesday, September 17, 2019. Hurricanes, and the flooding and wind damage they bring, are a perennial event in North America. 

The team returned mid-October of this year to get a sense for how the rivers have adjusted now that the flooding from both Florence and Dorian has subsided. The results of these comparisons will greatly enhance our understanding of the impact these extreme weather events have on the water quality and the potential health risks to residents. 

A better understanding of how hurricanes impact health—both in the short term through drowning and injury and in the long term through exposure to mobilized contaminants is needed to help residents prepare, respond and adapt to these extreme weather events associated with climate change.