Lab Matters Spring 2018 - Page 11

feature By Nancy Maddox, MPH, writer On June 23, 2016, the skies opened over West Virginia. As much as 10 inches of rain inundated parts of the state in less than 24 hours—a once-in-1,000 years rainfall. “We did get a little bit of a notice that there would be flooding, but nobody realized it would be as bad as it was,” said Greg Young, the environmental chemistry supervisor for the West Virginia Office of Laboratory Services. A local news crew happened to set up a reporting station about five miles north of the laboratory. And, “by accident,” because they were watching the news, Young and colleagues learned that a wall of water was heading their way. By 11 am, the water arrived. A low spot about half a mile from the facility quickly filled and overflowed, blocking access to the interstate and bringing muddy floodwaters within a foot of the laboratory parking lot. “We had no issues with flooding,” said Young. “But that was the closest I’ve seen it.” Other areas were not so lucky. The Elk River crested at an all-time high of 33.4 feet above flood stage. Twenty-six people were killed in flash floods. And the tiny city of Clendenin was literally “wiped out.” In an odd turn of fate, the devastating deluge had little impact on laboratory operations. Floodwater stranded one microbiologist at her home, and requests for well water testing rose only 4% over the next couple months. Because the damage in hard-hit areas was so complete, Young said, “there was PublicHealthLabs @APHL no house, no well, with water to test. Everything was just gone.” Even though the facility survived unscathed, Young said, “We’re now looking at the cost of replacing all our equipment and seeing if we have enough insurance to cover that.” 2016, as it turns out, was a record year for flooding. In addition to the West Virginia calamity, the US had 18 other severe flood events, more than any year since recordkeeping began in 1980. In Louisiana, for example, a no-name storm dropped more than 20 inches of water across several parishes—7.1 trillion gallons in all (three times as much as Hurricane Katrina), constituting another 1,000-year downpour. Yet Mother Nature has not let up. The hyperactive 2017 Atlantic hurricane season spawned 17 named storms, including ten back-to-back hurricanes— yet another record. Two hurricanes— Irma and Maria—reached Category 5 status, with winds in excess of 157 miles per hour. According to a study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (funded by the National Science Founda tion and US Army Corps of Engineers), the volume of rainfall from mesoscale convective systems (MCSs)—storm Spring 2018 LAB MATTERS 9