EcoWatch is a community of experts publishing quality, science-based content on environmental issues, causes, and solutions for a healthier planet and life. 
Mentioned by:

After Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans and its remnants struck New Jersey and New York, rescue efforts took place via boats and kayaks and people were often forced to walk through standing water. Some the standing water continues in flooded basements. It raises questions about the hazardous materials, such as wood planks, nails, random metal objects, as well as the less visible toxins, such as bacteria and fertilizers, which could be in the water.

When it rains, stormwater runs over land and lawn, sidewalks and streets, pavements and parking lots collecting whatever is in its way. The water gathers fertilizers, pesticides, phosphates, gasoline, heavy metals, litter, plastic and more.

After Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans and its remnants struck New Jersey and New York, rescue efforts took place via boats and kayaks and people were often forced to walk through standing water. Some the standing water continues in flooded basements. It raises questions about the hazardous materials, such as wood planks, nails, random metal objects, as well as the less visible toxins, such as bacteria and fertilizers, which could be in the water.


When it rains, stormwater runs over land and lawn, sidewalks and streets, pavements and parking lots collecting whatever is in its way. The water gathers fertilizers, pesticides, phosphates, gasoline, heavy metals, litter, plastic and more.

In most of New York City, storm runoff, sewage and wastewater from industries flow through the same pipes. (Queens and Staten Island are the exception: they have separate systems for sewage and stormwater.) The water is funneled to the city’s fourteen wastewater treatment plants.

During intensely wet weather, however, the water is not conveyed to the treatment plants, since it would exceed their capacity. Instead, “during such overflow periods, a portion of the sanitary sewage entering, or already in, the combined sewers discharges untreated into the waterway along with stormwater and debris washed from streets,” according to the New York City Environmental Quality Review Technical Manual. Specially, “during storms, if a greater amount of combined flow reaches the regulator, the excess is directed to outfalls into the nearest waterway (e.g., the Hudson River, East River).”

All it takes to exceed the capacity is rains of a tenth of an inch per hour. And according to the National Weather Service, it rained over three inches an hour when Ida measured at its most intense in Central Park.

This untreated overflow is called Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO). It is discharged out of 460 sites located around New York City. The overflow could contain anything from gasoline to pollutants from industrial facilities to untreated sewage.

Untreated sewage, in turn, might lead to bacteria in the water. Among bacteria, total coliform are widespread in nature, found in soil, water and animal and human waste. Fecal coliform, a subset of total coliform, are present in the gut and specifically in the feces of warm-blooded animals.

A species of fecal coliform is Escherichia coli or E. coli, which can be found in livestock such as cattle, chickens, pigs and sheep. While coliform typically does not cause disease, some strands of E.coli are harmful. Undercooked meat and contaminated water can be sources. The water can become contaminated by leaking septic tanks or sewage pipes; by the fecal matter of birds, humans, livestock and pets; or by the aforementioned untreated sewage. Typically, whether the water is safe cannot be determined by look, smell or taste. Instead the water must be tested.

Other common pollutants carried in stormwater include fertilizers, heavy metals, nitrates, PCBs, pesticides, phosphates and plastic particles — whatever chemicals the water flows over. Unlike water that goes down the drain at home, stormwater that goes down a drain on a street corner is untreated. Carrying its accumulated pollutants with it, it dispels them into waterways, creating not only an environmental hazard but also a health risk.

New York City’s water system is 150 years old. It badly needs an update to separate the sewage and stormwater systems. That said, even if the sewage were no longer to flow out the CSOs, the toxicity of the stormwater would remain, as would the risk of flooding.

In Queens, eleven of the thirteen fatalities were a result of flooded basement apartments. The areas that flooded and where eleven people drowned overlapped with a floodmap that the city issued in May 2021. According to The City, “the interactive map [was] released in conjunction with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s stormwater resiliency plan and required by a 2018 City Council law.”

https://twitter.com/Gothamist/statuses/1435740737161908227

Flooding can destroy a home and its electrical systems. It can create problems for the foundation and lead to structural issues. Mold is a big risk resulting from flooding, which can create health problems. Basements were not only more damaged but are also harder to dry out.

The cleanup can also be a challenge. The repairs can lead to exposure to asbestos, lead and other toxins found in homes. Of course, many products used to clean up also contain chemicals. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) advises that for floods at the workplace, “cleaning up spills of hazardous materials, and search and rescue, should only be conducted by workers who have the proper training, equipment and experience.” Similar advice is prudent for floods at home to avoid the health risks.

Yet hiring professionals to carry out these cleanups costs money. And many of those living in basement apartments were living in them precisely because they tend to be cheaper in price.

So what to do? Having the floodmaps in place is great but action must also be taken based on them to ensure that those most at risk are protected. It means that developers should not be allowed to build in flood zones. The mayor’s office estimates that there are at least 50,000 basement apartments in NYC with at least 100,000 residents. Basement apartments raise the issue of the need for housing to be more affordable in New York City or for wages to be commensurate with the cost of living in New York City.

Action is key because as the flooding of New Orleans after Katrina and Ida and now Nicholas, of Houston after Harvey and of New York City after Ida has shown, the threat of flooding is becoming less than a once a century risk. In New York City an estimated 2.5 million residents are already living in storm surge inundation zones.

The Netherlands — literally named the nether lands because about one third of the country lies below sea level — and other countries have been at the forefront of adapting to inundation. Coastal zones prone to flooding could be restored as wetlands. New York City currently has only “one percent of its historic freshwater wetlands and ten percent of its historic wetlands, namely in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island,” according to the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. It never ceases to amaze how a map of historical wetlands compares with a map of current flood zones.

Tidelands of the New York New Jersey Harbor Estuary.

Tidelands of the New York New Jersey Harbor Estuary. Regional Plan Association

Storm surge inundation zones and depths.

Storm surge inundation zones and depths. NHC, USACE

Existing wetlands could be protected and opportunities for expanding protection and restoration could be pursued. Wetlands help control floods by absorbing floodwater and stabilizing shorelines. Wetlands also help improve water quality by filtering stormwater runoff.

Myriad other strategies exist for reducing flooding and runoff. Rooftop gardens could gather rain and also, unlike tar, cool, and provide food. It might sound like a small thing but if expanded to the scale of the city, it would add up. Playgrounds and below ground parking garages could be constructing to double manner as catchment for water. More green along streets could harvest water. Since 2007, NYC has required permeable pavement for lots with more than 18 spaces of larger than 6000 square feet. Porous pavement is also being implemented. Both could be scaled up. Buzzwords to avoid floods in the new era: permeable and porous. Is it time for the return of cobblestones?

https://twitter.com/CDCEnvironment/statuses/1438156149598064642

Tina Gerhardt is an environmental journalist. She covers international climate negotiations, energy policy, sea level rise and related direct actions. Her work has been published by Grist, The Progressive, The Nation, Sierra and the Washington Monthly.

Read More
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

The partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 29, 2021 in Surfside, Florida. CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP via Getty Images

The hunt is on to find out why the Champlain Towers South in the Miami suburb of Surfside collapsed. On Friday, reports surfaced that in 2018 Frank P. Morabito, an engineer, assessed the 40-year old building and reported that he had found "major structural damage" in a concrete slab below the pool deck, near the base of the tower that collapsed.

Morabito had recommended repairs, including waterproofing below the pool deck and entrance way. These repairs had not been carried out when the collapse occurred.

The hunt is on to find out why the Champlain Towers South in the Miami suburb of Surfside collapsed. On Friday, reports surfaced that in 2018 Frank P. Morabito, an engineer, assessed the 40-year old building and reported that he had found “major structural damage” in a concrete slab below the pool deck, near the base of the tower that collapsed.


Morabito had recommended repairs, including waterproofing below the pool deck and entrance way. These repairs had not been carried out when the collapse occurred.

Morabito also found “abundant cracking” in the columns and pillars that support the parking garage located under the pool deck.

On Saturday, Surfside mayor Charles Burkett ordered the evacuation of residents of the sister Champlain Towers North next door. It was built in 1982 of the same materials and to the same specifications.

Morabito’s 2018 report had been prepared in order to help ensure the 12-story building met a 40-year review and recertification process, which, given that the building was constructed in 1971, would have been due this year. Cost seems to have been a factor in why the repairs were not made. But as will be discussed below, environmental factors, too, might have played a role. In April of this year, the president of the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association stated that damage to the building’s basement had “gotten significantly worse” since the inspection.

On Saturday, Daniella Levine Cava, mayor of Miami-Dade, announced a 30-day audit by county agencies of all high-rise buildings that are “at the forty-year point or beyond.”

Local officials are now also arguing that the 40-year recertification process should be more comprehensive. On Friday, Surfside commissioner Eliana Salzhauer told reporters that commissioners think the review process should include underground checks. Some have argued for a review process that starts earlier, say after 30 or 35 years, given the corrosive effects of the salty ocean air and water.

Surfside Commissioner Charles Kesl told The Guardian, “I want to know if there’s underground collapses and movement, which is quite possible, and if the building has been sinking a little bit.” He added, “There have been sinkholes in the neighborhood in the past 20 years. We have a lot of powerful water movement, we’ve got rising sea levels, we’ve got a water table that’s been saturated with salt water. There’s been no geological kinds of tests. We need to figure out what’s happened and we need to do it in a somewhat timely manner.”

Scientists are not as surprised by the disaster, for numerous reasons. While none of them is necessarily the sole cause of the condo collapse, any one or a combination of them might be implicated in whatever other causes are eventually found. As Salzhauer put it, “I don’t think it’s going to be any one factor. I think it’s going to be a cumulative effect of many different things.” Aside from the corrosive effects of saltwater, the environmental factors include the following four issues: 1. barrier islands; 2. the geology, limestone; 3. land sink; and 4. sea level rise.

The Champlain Towers sit on barrier islands between Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Barrier islands are typically elongated islands that are separate from and parallel to the shore. To some extent, they buffer the coastline and Miami Shores and Miami from waves and erosion. But barrier islands consist mostly of sand and sediment deposits accrued by waves. Importantly, barrier islands move — either landward (transgressive) or seaward (regressive). Scientists have long noted the risks associated with building on barrier islands.

“Barrier islands are among the most dynamic large land features,” Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of geology at Duke University, and his co-authors write in Retreat from a Rising Sea. An expert in sea level rise who has published over three dozen books on the topic, Pilkey also focuses specifically on barrier islands. As a resident of North Carolina for almost fifty years, he has spent much time studying the Outer Banks, which come up repeatedly in his books. In A Celebration of the World’s Barrier Islands (2003), the first book devoted to the topic, Pilkey highlights why building on barrier islands is risky and thus is not advised.

Then, there is the geology: this part of Florida consists of limestone, the swiss cheese of geology. In Retreat from a Rising Sea, Pilkey and his co-authors write that “Miami Limestone formation… is the most permeable and porous formation.” It allows saltwater to intrude, and some even say it soaks saltwater up like a sponge. Building on limestone increases the risk of flooding from underground (hence the call for examining the underground region), which is then compounded by sea level rise (more about that below). This combination allows saltwater to intrude further and have more corrosive effects on building structures than if the building were to be constructed on another geologic foundation or further inland away from the rising sea levels.

Add subsidence or land sink. Subsidence can occur in areas where fluids (water or oil) have been pumped out, such as the Mississippi Delta, or where buildings have been constructed on infill (see issues with the Millennium Tower in San Francisco).

In April 2020 Simone Fiaschi and Shimon Wdowinski published a study titled “Local land subsidence in Miami Beach (FL) and Norfolk (VA) and its contribution to flooding hazard in coastal communities along the U.S. and Atlantic Coast” in the journal Ocean and Coastal Management. It highlighted how localized land subsidence or land sink combined with rising sea levels resulted in increased flood hazards in Miami Beach. The reason? The area had been built on what was previously wetlands, a strategy used to “reclaim” land in metropolitan areas. Fiaschi and Wdowinski’s study found the building had been sinking in the 1990s. The findings were based on the research Fiaschi published in his 2017 dissertation.

Fiaschi stressed in an email that the reason for the collapse of Champlain Towers was unclear, saying it was “not possible to understand which are the causes of the collapse, or if the subsidence we detected have some sort of contribution to the failure of the building.” In other words, subsidence needs to be read together with other factors.

Lastly, there is climate change induced sea level rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report published in 2014 and the most recent one available, predicts between 5 and 26 inches (13 and 68 cm) of sea level rise by 2050 and 20-36 inches (52-98 cm) by 2100. The IPCC estimates are known to be quite conservative. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts about six and a half feet. While most of Miami rests at 6′ above sea level on average, much of the city is a mere 2-3 ft. above sea level and Surfside sits at 0′ feet elevation, so King Tides and storms inundate and flood the area’s buildings with saltwater. The Union of Concerned Scientists reported that within two to three decades Miami could be flooded 237 times per year.

Instead of advocating high-rise construction near coastlines, Pilkey advocates managed retreat from coastlines at risk from sea level rise. In The Rising Seas, Pilkey and Rob Young write, “Florida is the most endangered state in the nation from sea level rise and Miami the most endangered major city.” “Siting of high-rise buildings immediately adjacent to an eroding beach is not only irresponsible,” they add, “it also prevents any flexible response to sea level rise.”

Ultimately, issues related to structural integrity will likely be found. That said, they would not disqualify environmental issues. These are not mutually exclusive but instead mutually reinforcing.

In addition to the environmental factors, building codes need to be re-examined. These include what factors are and are not included, or even the decision to allow buildings to be constructed at all so close to the water, on a barrier island, on limestone, given subsidence and sea level rise, which can be compounded by even more climate change induced factors, such as heightened risk of hurricanes both in numbers and in strength and of intensified rain storms and flooding.

Environmental journalist Jeff Goodell has written about “the dangerous combination in Miami of cheap building, salt water, and lax enforcement of building codes” as he put it in a recent tweet. In his book The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World, Goodell writes, “But the legacy of cheap building in South Florida persists. You could see it in the devastation caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which flattened Homestead, a region just south of Miami: $26 billion in damage, 65 people dead, 250,000 homeless.”

Goodell added, “During my travels in South Florida, I learned that the concrete used in the much-beloved Art Deco buildings in South Beach was often mixed with salt water or salty beach sand, which can cause the rebar within the concrete to corrode over time and greatly weaken the concrete. While renovating a South Beach hotel, one architect I know discovered that the structural walls were so weak that you could practically knock them down with a hammer.”

When Goodell interviewed an electrical engineer about building codes, the engineer replied, “There was no code! If there was, nobody paid any attention to it. Your job was to do the work quick, and do the work cheap. In Miami Beach, nobody was thinking about the long term.”

Building collapses often do not have a single reason. Thus, while no environmental factor cited might account for the condo collapse, they could be implicated. One of climate change’s most crucial lessons: the environmental factors must be read together. It’s about threat multipliers rather than the smoking gun. In Surfside the environmental factors at play together with the lax building codes send a warning signal: policies need to be revisited and revised for the era of climate change. 21st century buildings need to have 21st century building codes to be able to withstand 21st century environmental factors.

Numerous expensive efforts aim to stave off the intruding saltwater in Miami. They include beach replenishment, the costly process of restoring sand that has eroded and washed away back to the coastline. (Hawai’i is currently spending $3-4 million to replenish Waikiki Beach.) Pilkey argues that “beach replenishment is costly, only temporary and will become increasingly less feasible as the sea rises.”

Aside from beach replenishment, there are sea walls. A $4 billion Stormwater Master Plan, which includes an assessment of the city’s roads and drainage infrastructure and plans for sea walls and stormwater pumps, aims to protect Miami against sea level rise. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also has plans, currently estimated to cost $6 billion, to build a sea wall. But according to Pilkey, sea walls will be ineffective in Miami since the saltwater will be able to inundate through the porous limestone. Pumps, too, he argues, “would be an exercise in futility. Pumping out the water flooding the city from all sides as a result of sea-level rise… would be like attempting to lower the level of the ocean with pumps. As fast as the water could be pumped out, the same volume from the sea would come in.” He argues that managed retreat is the best solution that no one wants to discuss.

Tina Gerhardt is an environmental journalist. She covers international climate negotiations, energy policy, sea level rise and related direct actions. Her work has been published by Grist, The Progressive, The Nation, Sierra and the Washington Monthly.

Read More

Rohingya refugees board a Bangladesh Navy ship to be transported to the island of Bhashan Char in Chittagong on December 4, 2020. AFP / Getty Images

On December 4, about 1,600 Rohingya traveled across the Bay of Bengal in seven navy boats from Chattogram to Bhasan Char. Bangladesh plans to move 100,000 families to the island.

The move poses serious concerns, both with regard to the environment and human rights.

On December 4, about 1,600 Rohingya traveled across the Bay of Bengal in seven navy boats from Chattogram to Bhasan Char. Bangladesh plans to move 100,000 families to the island.


The move poses serious concerns, both with regard to the environment and human rights.

Located about 18.6 miles (30 km) from the mainland, Bhasan Char is low-lying and prone to flooding. Therefore, it has been uninhabited. The island only formed in the past 20 years as a result of silt buildup. Bhasan Char rests at the confluence of three large rivers, the Brahmaputra, the Ganges and the Meghna River, which collectively bring rich deposits of silt to the bay.

Bhasan Char rests in the Bay of Bengal subject to frequent cyclones, at risk of intensifying as they circle in the Bay’s funnel shape. On average, three to four storms form in the basin and Bhasan Char lies in the historical path of cyclones. This year, Category 5 cyclone Amphan, one of the strongest on record, formed in the Bay of Bengal. Cyclone Amphan, as Refugees International reported, caused great devastation not far from Bhasan Char and such super cyclones are more likely in the future.

The move of Rohingya refugees also poses serious human rights concerns. The United Nations (UN) stated it “has not been involved in preparations for this movement or the identification of refugees and has limited information on the overall relocation exercise.” It added, “The United Nations takes this opportunity to highlight its longstanding position that Rohingya refugees must be able to make a free and informed decision about relocating to Bhasan Char based upon relevant, accurate and updated information.”

The government asserts that the movements to the island were and will be voluntary. However, Human Rights Watch “spoke with 12 families refugees who said their names were on the list, but that they had not willingly volunteered to relocate.”

One refugee told Human Rights Watch, “My name appeared on the list so now the CiC [Camp-in-Charge, camp authority] has threatened me, saying that since my name is there, I must go. He said, even if I die, they will take my body there [to Bhasan Char]. I don’t want to go to that island.”

Daniel Sullivan, Refugees International, told EcoWatch, “there are troubling indications that Rohingya ‘volunteers’ are being coerced or misled. When I visited the camps last year, refugees told me they believed – falsely – that they would receive money or gain Bangladeshi citizenship if they volunteered to move to Bhasan Char. Other groups have reported similar misinformation today and some people on the volunteer lists say they never agreed to be relocated.”

Another refugee told Human Rights Watch that he put his name on the list because camp leaders told him that those on the list would be given priority to repatriate to Myanmar and be paid 5,000 taka (US). But he changed his mind about relocating when he heard that those currently being detained on the island are being held in “prison-like facilities” and don’t have freedom of movement.

Freedom of movement is a key right upon which the UN insists, stating “refugees who choose to move to Bhasan Char should have basic rights and services on the island, which would include effective freedom of movement to and from the mainland, as well as access to education, health care, and livelihood opportunities.”

Being sequestered on an island without freedom of movement recalls the situation of refugees imprisoned on Nauru in the Pacific.

The UN also stated that any relocations should be preceded by comprehensive technical assessments to “review the safety, feasibility and sustainability of Bhasan Char as a place for refugees to live.” It continued, “the United Nations is prepared to proceed with the technical and protection assessments, if permitted by the Government.”

Bangladesh states that it has spent 2 million fortifying embankments to counter any future flooding, building housing, schools, roads, hospitals, mosques and shelters in case of cyclones. The island will be able to house 100,000 people.

Yet refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch say they are denied freedom of movement and have no access to sustainable livelihoods or education.

Sullivan, Refugees International told EcoWatch, “Serious questions remain unanswered about the physical safety of the island and the ability to provide adequate food, health, and protection services without proper assessments and planning with UN agencies and NGOs. Some of the 300 refugees already on the island have already reported abuse by authorities and have been unable to reunite with family in the main camps.”

Sullivan states, “Bangladesh should allow safety and feasibility assessments by UN agencies and by human rights groups, as Refugees International, Fortify Rights, and other groups requested earlier this year. Without appropriate assessments and adequate information for refugees about the conditions on the island, the move is nothing short of a dangerous mass detention of the Rohingya people in violation of international human rights obligations.”

The refugees were sent to Bhasan Char in early December were bussed up from Cox’s Bazar in coastal Bangladesh where an estimated one million Rohingya refugees live. In August 2017 armed groups attacked military outposts in western Myanmar. Allegedly, the armed groups belonged to the Rohingya. The military of Buddhist majority Myanmar began a harsh crackdown in response. An estimated 700,000 Muslim Rohingya fled. About 300,000 had fled earlier waves of the ongoing persecution in Myanmar that started in 1978 and experienced an uptick in the 1990s.

A 1982 Citizenship Law deprives the Rohingya of citizenship. Then, in 2015, during the Obama-Biden administration, the Burmese government stripped Rohingya of temporary identification cards, leading to a forcible displacement to neighboring countries.

It remains to be seen if the new Biden Administration will work to end the violence unleashed against the Rohingya in Myanmar and work to broker peace to facilitate their safe return to their home country. Biden’s agenda acknowledges the situation and states, “the systematic discrimination and atrocities against Burma’s Rohingya Muslim minority is abhorrent and undermines peace and stability.”

On August 15, 2020, Antony Blinken tweeted: “Today marks 3 years since hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were driven from their homes in Burma. A Biden administration will work tirelessly to support justice for atrocities committed, as well as peace, security, and equal rights for the Rohingya as citizens of Burma.” Blinken is now Biden’s Secretary of State nominee.

While the move of Rohingya to Bhasan Char is troubling, the bigger Rohingya crisis also needs to be resolved. Sullivan of Refugees International states, “While the root causes and long-term solution to the Rohingya crisis lie in Myanmar and Bangladesh deserves great credit for hosting some million Rohingya refugees, the world cannot allow Bangladesh to pursue policies that unnecessarily endanger the Rohingya further.”

Tina Gerhardt is an environmental journalist. She covers international climate negotiations, energy policy, sea level rise and related direct actions. Her work has been published by Grist, The Progressive, The Nation, Sierra and the Washington Monthly.

Read More
Spinning icon while loading more posts.