By MAGGIE JARUZEL POTTER
It’s been a fortnight since deadly tornadoes ripped through seven Southern states, and some environmental leaders in the region say the storms’ damage extends beyond the known casualties – hundreds of lives lost and thousands of structures destroyed.
“My fear is that we will rebuild quickly, rather than carefully,” said Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper
. “If we don’t rebuild our critical infrastructures carefully, such as water treatment centers, our hasty action could impact us even harder than the disaster itself.”
Addressing disasters – whether natural or man-made – has become standard practice for Callaway. First, there was Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 in Louisiana and Alabama; then the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010; and, most recently, the April 2011 tornadoes and storms, which some are calling Alabama’s “worst natural disaster.”
Callaway clearly remembers flooding from Katrina spreading sewage in all directions, allowing it to seep into the water table in a vast area. Still, municipal leaders did not learn the obvious lesson, she says.
“After Hurricane Katrina, at least one sewage facility was built in the exact same flood zone. We’ve got to do better than that after this disaster.”
Callaway’s Alabama-based environmental group has more than 4,000 members whose shared mission is to protect and restore water quality in the Mobile Bay watershed, which encompasses 65 percent of the land area in Alabama, along with portions of Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee. This fourth largest watershed in North America is a network of rivers, bays, creeks, bayous, lakes, branches and marshes.
Stormwater runoff in the Mobile Bay watershed, as in other regions in the country, remains one of the top water-quality threats. Since 2007, Mobile Baykeeper has served as coordinator for the Alabama Stormwater Partnership
, which addresses runoff issues.
Sediment and nutrient pollution, erosion, and bank collapses from excessive flows – along with low flows during dry weather due to reduced groundwater – all can damage aquatic habitats, cause property losses and endanger drinking water. These problems are being exacerbated by the tremendous runoff from the recent storms, Callaway says.
The Mott Foundation’s Environment program, through its Conservation of Freshwater Ecosystems
program area, provides grants in selected areas of North America, including emphasis on portions of the southeastern U.S. because freshwater ecosystems there have high levels of biodiversity.
For several years partnership members have been working to educate residents, developers and legislators about the need to strengthen the state’s current stormwater policy, both the regulations themselves and their implementation and enforcement. Callaway says they are not in line with national standards and do not adequately protect the state’s water resources.
Now, the tornadoes and storms have aggravated statewide threats to clean water supplies and wildlife habitat, she says.
While more than 50 percent of the state’s counties were affected by the storms, the massive devastation could provide the region with an opportunity to step back and rethink the way it handles infrastructure projects, Callaway says.
John L. Wathen agrees. He is the creekkeeper for Hurricane Creek
, which is a member of the stormwater partnership. Wathen says the two tornadoes that tore through his small community of Holt (just outside Tuscaloosa, which was one of the hardest-hit areas) destroyed houses, businesses and infrastructure.
An aerial view shows a wide path of destruction from tornadoes [light brown swath near top] in the wake of what is being hailed as Alabama’s “worst natural disaster.” Photo John L. Wathen
Following Hurricane Katrina, Wathen had built a storm shelter for his extended family, which they occupied during the recent tornadoes. When the 57-year-old grandfather stepped out of the shelter, he says, he was shocked. There were empty patches where houses once stood, including his brother’s, and the region’s plentiful timber was gone, leaving a barren landscape. The tornadoes were so strong they sucked the grass out of the ground by the roots and the water from the river.
“We can see more skyline than we ever could before,” Wathen said.
“We don’t know what is in those piles of debris scattered everywhere. It could be anything from dirty diapers to onion peels to metals – and it is all there on the ground and getting into the water supply.”
He says there also is storm-tossed debris in the area’s rivers and creeks. While Wathen has been busy helping with rescue and recovery efforts (undertaken without electricity for a full week), he plans to start collecting water samples this week and is bracing himself for what he might find.
Callaway shares Wathen’s environmental concerns, including distress about the amount of timber that has been lost, thereby reducing the habitat for Alabama’s wildlife. Also, the previously plentiful trees helped with runoff problems, she says, because trees absorb rainwater and store it, which reduces erosion.
“We’ve got to start tightening our stormwater laws and enforcing them across the state,” Callaway said. “We have to do this to keep our drinking water as clean as possible.”