Unprecedented. Historic. Epic. Those were the words the Federal Emergency Management Agency used to describe the August 2016 flooding in Louisiana, considered the worst U.S. natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy four years ago.
In response to that disaster, Virginia Tech researchers are working to develop low-cost, practical remediation and communication strategies that will set protocols in place to ensure clean well water is available after natural disasters, such as “The Great 2016 Louisiana Flood.”
Kelsey Pieper, a U.S. Department of Agriculture – National Institute of Food and Agriculture postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech, in collaboration with Adrienne Katner, assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s Health Science Center, has received a $150,000 RAPID Research Response grant from the National Science Foundation to assess public health dangers.
As a result of the torrential rains in August, Katner’s own well was submerged by the floodwaters for more than a week. As a resident of French Settlement, a village in Livingston Parish, Louisiana, Katner also was concerned with the lack of information and support provided to residents impacted by the floods and dependent on private wells.
“There was no information being provided to us on well treatment or testing, so I called on my friends at Virginia Tech,” said Katner, who has collaborated with Virginia Tech's Flint Water Study team on prior work in St. Joe, Louisiana, and New Orleans.
In September 2016, Virginia Tech researchers traveled to Louisiana to test several private wells in Livingston Parish. Then in October, the team completed well water sampling of 113 parish residences, testing for inorganics, bacteria, and pathogens.
“Our initial testing suggested potential contamination issues associated with the flood, so we expanded our efforts,” Pieper said of the community-wide sampling effort. “We handed out sampling kits at the local Baptist and Catholic churches in French Settlement, which was organized with the help of the sheriff’s department.”
Health officials advise well users that their water may not be safe to drink after a flood because contaminants, such as bacteria and pathogens, may be introduced when well systems are submerged under floodwaters. Officials recommend disinfecting the well systems before resuming normal household use, but there is not a standard disinfection protocol.
“Over the next year, we will continue working with residents of Livingston Parish and conduct laboratory experiments to develop science-based remediation options,” said Katner. “We will evaluate and develop communication strategies for natural disaster response. Getting information to the people most affected by the disaster is critical.”
The collaborative team is assisted by professors Marc Edwards and Amy Pruden and doctoral student William Rhoads, all of the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech.
Pieper and Rhoads are members of Edwards’ Flint Water Study team, which in August 2105 worked to expose elevated lead levels in Flint, Michigan’s, water supply. The team most recently concluded the fourth round of water testing in Flint.