Weather News

Hurricane health trouble could start with tainted water

South Carolinians line up to fill water jugs on September 22, 1989 after Hurricane Hugo cut power, water and other utilities across the state.
South Carolinians line up to fill water jugs on September 22, 1989 after Hurricane Hugo cut power, water and other utilities across the state. The State

More from the series

Hurricane Hugo coverage from The State: Sept. 17 - Sept. 24, 1989

Read more stories from The State’s original reporting of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. From Hugo’s collision with the Caribbean islands and Puerto Rico to its catastrophic landfall near Charleston, The State kept readers up-to-date with vital news about the event that turned into the worst storm South Carolina has ever seen.

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South Carolina health officials warned Thursday that the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo could pose a variety of health problems for those who are not cautious, with contaminated drinking water the most likely source of trouble.

”The broadest major health problem would be in water systems becoming contaminated,” said Michael Jarrett, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

”We have notified all utilities that they must check their emergency power generators,” to ensure that they are able to maintain the flow of water, he said. “We have sent emergency generators to our lab in Charleston to assist with testing.”

DHEC officials said notices have been sent to all of the state’s 3,000 water systems alerting them of the potential problems that Hugo could cause and advising them to activate emergency plans.

According to DHEC’s Bill Rowell, if electricity is interrupted and water systems shut down -- even briefly -- the agency will issue an advisory to boil all water.

”If a system loses power or pressure, we consider it contaminated,” Rowell said.”

Historically, the most significant problem is due to a power outage that leads to a loss of pressure. When the system loses pressure, there is a chance the system can become contaminated.”

When water systems lose power, pressure can reverse, allowing dirty water to be sucked into the system, much like a siphon, a DHEC official said. Large water systems have equipment to prevent back flow, but DHEC still considers the water contaminated if power is lost.

Once power is restored, it could take several days to flush the contaminants out of the system.

If a severe storm appears imminent, large municipal systems routinely add additional disinfectant -- such as chlorine -- to the water to kill bacteria and other organisms that might taint the water if problems develop.

Most large municipal systems -- such as Columbia’s -- have emergency power and a detailed emergency preparedness plans, but small systems and homes on private wells may be most vulnerable if serious flooding occurs or if power is lost.

Health officials say the most difficult problems are usually found in remote, rural areas, where wells supply drinking water. Those wells can quickly become contaminated, and those areas are often the last to have power restored.

”The most frequent problems come from bacteriological contamination and from parasites,” Rowell said. While those afflictions aren’t life- threatening, they can cause diarrhea, nausea and cramps for several days.

In more serious cases, cholera, dysentery and hepatitis can develop.

Rowell and others advise anyone who doubts the quality of his water to assume it’s contaminated and take action to cleanse the water.

To disinfect water, it must be heated to a full, roiling boil for at least a minute, or it can be chemically disinfected by adding household bleach, known chemically as sodium hypochlorite.

Rowell said any bleach can be used as long as it contains no additives and has a concentration between 4 percent and 6 percent. Two to four drops of bleach per quart of water will kill any harmful organism. But be careful not to add more than that, because higher concentrations of bleach can be poisonous.

Another concern, although less of a health threat, is treating waste water.

”It’s a concern, but it’s not an immediate concern,” said Jim Joy, chief of DHEC’s Bureau of Water Pollution Control. “Our biggest concern is having drinkable water.”

Joy said DHEC has teams of technicians standing by to test water supplies that may be affected by Hurricane Hugo, but, “There’s not a lot we can do until after the fact. You can’t anticipate what will happen.”

DHEC’s emergency plan was developed in 1979 after Hurricane David struck the state, but Joy said Hugo will be the first full-fledged test of the plan.

Under the plan, DHEC will also assist other state agencies in supplying medical supplies and evacuating the sick, the elderly and the poor from vulnerable areas.

Officials also suggested that garbage be reduced to a minimum and that it be disposed of in secure containers that are protected from the harsh weather.