It's been six months since Hurricane Sandy, and in many ways the damage caused by the massive storm is still being calculated. A new report from Climate Central, published today, finds that the hurricane caused sewage systems throughout the regions affected by the storm to overflow, sending 11 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage into rivers, bays and other water systems, and to a lesser extent into city streets.
The report reveals the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of our current infrastructure, especially in the face of climate change and rising sea levels, according to Alyson Kenward, senior scientist at Climate Central. Speaking during a press call on Tuesday morning, she said the study shows how vulnerable the U.S. sewage system is to storms and floods. "Our systems aren't designed to handle this kind of storm overflow," she said. "We need to adapt for the future."
Kenward said the amount of overflow released during the storm would be enough to cover all of Central Park in 41 feet of sewage.
The vast majority of the sewage overflows (94 percent) took place in New York and New Jersey. Overflow events were also documented in Washington, D.C., as well as Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Virginia, Rhode Island and Delaware. The damage did not all occur during the storm itself, as some of the leakage continued for weeks after Sandy had subsided.
New York and New Jersey not only had the most overflow events, they also had the largest overflows. The worst overflow occurred in Newark, N.J., where 840 million gallons of untreated sewage flowed into Newark Bay during the storm and another 3 billion gallons of partially treated sewage leaked out over the next two weeks. The worst overflow in New York occurred in Bay Park, where 2.2 billion gallons of partially treated sewage entered Rockaway Channel. That flow of sewage continued for more than a month after Sandy until the plant became fully operational again.
The report did not look into the health effects of the overflows, but Kenward pointed out that areas with consistent sewage leaks become contaminated, and that can affect human health. She said the long-range effects to people and the environment of these overflows still need to be calculated and studied.
Ben Strauss, COO and director of the program on sea level rise at Climate Central, said the effect of Hurricane Sandy was undoubtedly worsened by sea-level rise. Ocean levels have increased eight inches since 1880, and while he says that may not seem like much, it can dramatically increase the power of storms and the damage they cause in coastal regions. "Every coastal flood we have in the United States is worse due to climate change and sea-level rise," he said during the press call.
Climate Central also published this interactive graphic showing what caused sewage overflows and how they affected various regions in the Northeast: