It’s not just the people who suffer when hurricanes make landfall. Thousands of animals are killed, waterways are damaged, trees are uprooted and the ground is eroded. As a natural part of Earth’s climate, these disasters are events that have been altering the coasts for millions of years.
The natural ecological destruction hurricanes in Florida cause is not inherently negative, and could even be comparable to some of the clutter-clearing, soil-enriching benefits of forest fires.
The difference in modern times, and the reason the environmental impacts of hurricanes are particularly negative today, is strictly due to humans.
There are all types of laws and regulations in place to ensure waste and substances that are harmful to the environment and people are properly disposed of and stored. Hurricanes don’t care about our regulations. They have no qualms about dispersing chemicals and waste byproducts among the homes, businesses and streets we all inhabit and use every day.
Taking humans out of the equation, hurricanes will:
Our kneejerk reaction to animal death is understandably negative, regardless of whether the cause of those deaths is natural or manmade. Hurricane Hugo is believed to have halved the population of Puerto Rican Parrots. Hurricane Gilbert is believed to have pushed the Cozumel Thrasher, a species of bird found exclusively on Isla Cozumel, to the brink of extinction. While both of those events seem tragic, they were natural.
Death or injury due to flooding or wind isn’t the only way hurricanes effect animals. Entire food chains can be disrupted. During a hurricane, the littlest animals and plants may get killed or have their habitats destroyed, forcing them to move. The predators that survived on the now relocated population then lose out on their food source, forcing the predators into starvation or migration.
Some plants only pollinate or germinate during specific seasons. A poorly timed hurricane has the potential to disrupt a plant species’ entire reproductive cycle for a whole year, which could have far-reaching future consequences on the viability of the species.
One estimate suggests the combined force of Hurricane Ivan, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita and Hurricane changed the position of shorelines by up to 100 meters. They believe those storms resulted in 73 square miles of lost coast land.
A Smithsonian report estimated the impact was far great, suggesting the four back-to-back storms may have resulted in a loss of up to 328 square miles of coastal wetlands in Louisiana.
These are all just the natural effects of a hurricane. As with wildfires, when you take humans out of the equation, natural disasters are simply a form of climatic creative destruction. It’s neither a positive nor negative event in the grand scheme of things, it’s just change.
The situation is far different when you add humans to that equation.
Whenever a hurricane hits a populated area, garbage is always an issue. The possessions, homes and vehicles of every person or business in the path of hurricane-force winds and storm surge can become swept up in flooding. Storm surge flooding and wind can spread the contents over a large swath of land or water. A lot of the debris can be relatively easily picked up, but collecting some parts of the waste, such as motor oil or gasoline from flooded vehicles, can be a lot more challenging.
The environmental impact of chemicals and hazardous waste that gets washed out by hurricane flooding has the potential to dwarf the destructive impact of a flooded vehicle or two. Some of these chemicals soak into the ground, and even pose a long-term risk to the health of area residents by threatening to contaminate water tables and reservoirs.
A disturbing example of this happened during Hurricane Florence in September 2018. Some of the hurricane flooding inundated a “hog lagoon,” essentially a big pit holding pig waste, in North Carolina. All told, at least 110 hog lagoons were at risk for releasing pig waste during Hurricane Florence.
North Carolina is home to nearly 10 million pigs. Those 10 million pigs are estimated to produce 10 billion gallons of manure annually. All that waste is stored in lagoons laced with special bacteria that digests and treats the waste so it’s less environmentally harmful. When the waste gets out, it can lead to algae blooms that kill local fish on a cataclysmic scale. Hurricane Floyd in 1999 caused a similar issue. Lagoons overflowed and thousands of animals drowned.
While experts don’t have the evidence necessary to draw a definitive causal link, the fact is people living near these lagoons and hog farms have health issues and a lower life expectancy than the average American. The bacteria and pathogens in pig waste are dangerous, and roughly a million households in effected areas were forced to drink bottle water and be careful with ground water for months after the hurricanes until county water testers gave the all clear.
There’s also an economic cost in terms of crop destruction. Any food crops that were contaminated couldn’t be put on the market. Those crops weren’t even allowed to be used as feed until they passed rigorous testing protocol.
When the flood waters receded and well water was tested by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, almost half of the wells tested positive for E. coli, coliform or both.
Hurricane Harvey had a similar effect in Houston, where there are significant industrial facilities and manufacturers dealing in potentially hazardous chemicals. Some of the carcinogenic and toxic industrial substances released during Harvey included benzene, butadiene and vinyl chloride. Estimates suggest more than 365 tons of dangerous chemicals were released into the water, air and land during Hurricane Harvey.
The loss of lives and the destruction of homes and small businesses caused by hurricanes are certainly tragic, but they are usually measurable. The environmental impact of a hurricane can be much harder to quantify, especially when you put modern manufacturing and industrial hazardous waste into the equation. Floridians should be cognizant of those risks and take extra steps to ensure their families are safe from those hazards if a hurricane is on the way.