Hell in high water

You never know what a hurricane will unearth

Louisiana National Guard members clean up after Hurricane Laura | Lake Charles, Louisiana | CC 2.0, courtesy of the Louisiana National Guard
Louisiana National Guard members clean up after Hurricane Laura | Lake Charles, Louisiana | CC 2.0, courtesy of the Louisiana National Guard

As hurricane season begins, we’re all prepared for the devastation caused by wind, rain, tornadoes and floods. The catastrophic damage, exacerbated by climate change, has become worse in recent years and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association (NOAA) is predicting another above-normal Atlantic hurricane season in 2021.

While many of the hurricanes’ effects, such as the wind damage to structures, are obvious, these powerful storms also unleash insidious, toxic dangers that are neither easy to recognize nor remediate. The regions of the United States prone to hurricane damage are rife with accidents waiting to happen: Superfund siteslagoons full of pig manurepits full of coal ash and more.

The first hurricane I ever covered as a TV news producer was Hurricane Floyd in 1999. While that storm became notorious in North Carolina for devastating flooding that extended far inland (coffins floating up out of the ground!), I caught the storm as it crawled up the Eastern Seaboard parallel to Florida.

I had been in Texas covering a murder trial. My crew got a call from our assignment desk, telling us that Hurricane Floyd was evolving into a serious storm, and we needed to head to the airport and catch the next available flight to Florida.

Most of the Sunshine State had already shut down, but we managed to board the last plane into one of the Panhandle airports. (Panama City? Fort Walton Beach? Tallahassee? I don’t remember.) There, our crew picked up a handful of minivans and Ryder trucks and headed east on Interstate 10. As we drove further, the situation became more and more surreal: At some point, we became the only vehicles traveling eastbound as hordes of people fled in the opposite direction.

We arrived in Jacksonville at dusk, with an eerie light and calm hanging over the often-bustling downtown. After a night of restless sleep, we arose to meet the satellite truck at the live shot location on one of the beaches east of the city. For wind protection, the truck was parked on the leeward side of a hotel. Several reporters and photographers set up their equipment while the foamy Atlantic inched up into the parking lot. Hour after hour, the reporters did live TV hits for national networks and local stations across the country. And hour after hour, the foam rose, until it was above our waists. It seemed like we were in a giant outdoor tub and someone had poured in too much bubble bath.

I’ll never know what was in the dirty foam I trudged through all day, but odds are it wasn’t healthy. Like too many parts of the United States, the area around Jacksonville is blighted by Superfund sites and coal ash dumping grounds. Even if floodwaters don’t unearth toxic pollutants, hurricane-stoked flooding often overwhelms sewer systems and propels fecal-contaminated water into low-lying streets and homes.

I got to leave the flood zone as the storm moved up the coast. But all those people who were fleeing westward before landfall eventually returned to Jacksonville. Many of them, like other evacuees returning home after hurricanes, likely found unwanted squatters: water-borne diseasesmold and other toxics.

While some of this is unavoidable, our elected leaders have historic opportunities right now to minimize the health and environmental risks of hurricanes. First, Congress can pass the Superfund Reinvestment Act. This bill would reverse the slowdown in Superfund site cleanups, speeding up efforts to make the United States cleaner and safer. Second, Congress can dramatically increase funding to prevent sewage overflows and runoff pollution. Finally, if we can properly execute President Joe Biden’s plan to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, we can help slow global warming and avoid the worst potential impacts of climate change — including increasingly common and severe hurricanes.

Passing and implementing these plans should be bipartisan no-brainers that will help Americans of every demographic. Take it from someone who’s been there: You don’t want to spend even a minute of your life wading through waist-deep mystery foam.


Mark Morgenstein

Director of Media Relations, The Public Interest Network

Mark leads The Public Interest Network’s national communications and media relations campaigns. Before joining The Public Interest Network, Mark worked at CNN for nearly 20 years, and taught writing classes for six years through the Turner Professional Development Center. Mark was the recipient of an Emmy Award, two Peabody Awards and a DuPont Award. Mark currently lives near Denver, Colo., with his wife and three children. He's also a music fanatic who's been lucky enough to interview many of his favorite artists.