Hurricane Dorian May Brush Virginia, Bringing Danger of Toxic Floodwaters

David Flores

Sept. 5, 2019

In August, Virginians remembered the devastation wrought by Hurricane Camille 50 years earlier. After making landfall on the Gulf Coast, that storm dumped dozens of inches of rain in western portions of the Commonwealth and killed more than 150 people in flash floods and landslides. Today, Virginians along the Atlantic coast and in the Hampton Roads region have Hurricane Dorian on their minds, with potentially life-threatening flooding, property destruction, and toxic floodwaters being serious hazards.

The National Weather Service is now predicting that Dorian could bring storm surge flooding of two to four feet to Hampton Roads by Friday afternoon. Heavy precipitation could also exacerbate storm surge with urban and river flooding.

Over the next several days, residents of Hampton Roads and government officials should also be cautious about the risk of floodwaters contaminated by wastewater and debris and, especially, the threat of flood-induced chemical disaster. Based on our recent analysis, the communities most socially vulnerable to disaster in the Hampton Roads contain at least 150 – but possibly more than 400 – hazardous chemical facilities that could be exposed to storm surge flooding from Category 1 and Category 2 hurricanes. If and when these facilities are flooded, their operators and regulators may be unprepared to avert chemical spills into floodwaters and surrounding communities.

The communities where these flood-exposed facilities are located are among the most socially vulnerable to disaster nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Social Vulnerability Index. Households that are socially and economically disadvantaged are typically more vulnerable to flooding and chemical disasters. In addition to being less mobile and less able to evacuate, these communities also struggle with accessing safe, affordable temporary shelter and affordable and adequate remediation of their flood-contaminated homes. Vulnerable populations, including children, the immunocompromised, and the elderly, are also susceptible to greater harm from exposure to floodwaters and hazardous chemical contamination.

The types of industrial facilities exposed to flooding from storm surge in Hampton Roads are varied. Numerous facilities regulated by comparatively stringent federal programs – such as Superfund or the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act – exist in the highly industrialized region. Less stringently regulated facilities, such as underground petroleum storage tanks and contaminated brownfields, are even more numerous. Some facilities, such as aboveground chemical storage tanks, are not even registered, let alone regulated, by Virginia or the federal government. None of the state or federal regulatory programs that we analyzed in our Toxic Floodwaters report are responsive to the flood-driven risk of chemical disaster that is growing because of climate change.

While the Department of Defense has invested substantially in hardening its assets in Hampton Roads, the Trump administration, among other rollbacks in hazardous chemical controls, recently diverted funds for hazardous materials containment facilities away from military installations in the region toward its southern border wall boondoggle. The administration's fervor for deregulation and outrageous climate denialism are no surprise, but the cost of the federal government's retreat on control of hazardous chemicals and climate adaptation will likely result in real costs for coastal Virginians.

All maps in this post were produced by Chesapeake Commons.

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