Flint Water Crisis team brings relief to well owners following hurricanes Harvey and Irma

flint harvey irma

Lauren Buttling, a senior in environmental policy and planning, isolates E. coli samples for further study in a pathogen ecology lab led by civil and environmental engineering professors Marc Edwards and Amy Pruden.

It all started with a few phone calls to check in on friends at Texas A&M and the University of Florida.

After hurricanes Harvey and Irma battered the southern coastline, Kelsey Pieper called Extension faculty from the two universities — friends she’d met through her work as a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech.

“We just reached out and were like, ‘Hey, we’re thinking of you, do you need anything?’ And then that started the conversation of ‘what are you all doing after the flood?’” said Pieper.

Her next question: “How can we help?”

Now, backed by a $200,000 National Science Foundation RAPID grant and advisory support from civil and environmental engineering professors Marc Edwards and Amy Pruden, Pieper, postdoctoral researcher William Rhoads, civil and environmental engineering Ph.D. candidate Kristine Mapili, and a team of Virginia Tech students are helping reach well owners with vital information on well-water supply contamination, the likelihood of which increases following hurricanes.

The grant will fund the on-the-ground distribution of water sampling kits and educational training in Texas and Florida, which faculty from Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension Service and University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension program will lead. The Virginia Tech team will analyze the samples and distribute the results to well owners.

Rhoads, a postdoctoral researcher in the College of Engineering, is leading the microbial analysis. He said the team is not only conducting microbial testing and providing an evaluation of water treatment options for well owners, they will also document the presence of any pathogens in the water.

“These pathogens are known to cause health issues, mainly in large buildings with immunocompromised inhabitants like hospitals, but no one has really looked for them in private well systems yet,” Rhoads said.

Taking it one step further, the team will build upon research on risk communication strategies with well owners that began earlier this year with collaborator Adrienne Katner, a faculty member of the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center’s School of Public Health-New Orleans.

Using funding from a separate National Science Foundation RAPID grant earned last year, Katner, Pieper, Rhoads, and other Virginia Tech students conducted testing for inorganics, bacteria, and pathogens in well water samples from 113 parish residences in Louisiana impacted by a major flood.

“This is an exciting opportunity for AgriLife Extension to work with Virginia Tech and the other universities to respond to the effects of Hurricane Harvey,” said Diane Boellstorff, AgriLife Extension water resource specialist and associate professor in the Texas A&M Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. “With its expertise in responding to similar situations in Louisiana, the team was able to share its strategies to quickly bring needed information and help to Texas well owners affected by Harvey.”

Beyond the testing, they evaluated and developed communication strategies for natural disaster response — desperately needed, considering the oftentimes hard-to-find information on what well owners should do to ensure they have potable water following a natural disaster.

“How are people looking for information? Are they reading the newspaper, watching the news, or are they going online? And how can we help better equip the first responders, FEMA, [and] state health officials to get that information to the people?” Pieper said.

With no federal regulation on well-water supply quality, private well owners can be left in the dark on vital information after a flooding, which often leads to contamination of well water.

Well owners should assume water has been compromised by bacteria until proven otherwise, according to Andrea Albertin, a regional water resources agent for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension program.

“Water from a flooded well should not be used for drinking, cooking, making ice, brushing teeth, or even washing areas of the skin that have been cut or injured until it is tested,” Albertin said.

But the knowledge is useless unless it’s accessible to the well owners who need it, leading Pieper and Katner to tack on the expansion of their previous work to the most recent RAPID grant award. The team hopes to create a comprehensive guide to communicating with well-water owners now and in the future to keep them informed and healthy when natural disasters strike.

“We found in Louisiana that the majority of people wanted to do testing; they understood the need to do testing, but they didn’t know where to go get testing,” Pieper said. “So the information was available, but it wasn’t necessarily accessible.”

Over the course of the next year, Pieper, Rhoads, Mapili, and the students on the project will also compile a comprehensive data analysis using samples collected in Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and Virginia, where the team has also worked on sampling well water. They’re aiming for 2,000 samples.

Ultimately, the team hopes the compiled data will help illustrate the similarities and differences in the impacts across the United States of hurricanes and major rain events.

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