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September 13, 2018

Hurricane Florence: Three water-related lessons

Right now, Hurricane Florence is battering the Carolina coast. Its power and size have meteorologists predicting catastrophic damage, but no one really knows what will happen in the next few days.

What we do know is that hurricanes highlight three things central to our mission at Sloan: fresh water availability, smart water infrastructure and global sustainability.

Here’s what we’re pondering while praying for everyone in Florence’s path.

Disasters like Florence make fresh water more precious

Fresh water is always precious — it’s the world’s single most important natural resource. But it’s also one most Americans take for granted, since it pours out of our taps whenever we need it.

Until it doesn’t.

Disasters like Florence (and last year’s Hurricane Harvey) drive people from their homes, sometimes for weeks on end. Their temporary shelters in churches, schools and sports arenas may not be equipped to provide enough fresh water for everyone staying there, and water delivery systems can be contaminated by the disaster. Life-sustaining water has to be brought in from elsewhere.

How much? At the bare minimum, people need one gallon per day of drinking water. Add quick showers and moderate toilet use, and shelters need to provide about 30 gallons a day per person, which means relief organizations need to provide a tanker load of water every day for every 6,000 people in shelters.

Disasters like Florence demand smarter water infrastructure

 “Water infrastructure” usually refers to the ways we deliver water where we want it, but it can also refer to how we keep water from going where we don’t want it.

A hurricane like Florence is an extreme case of water going where we don’t want it, and some regions build extreme measures to protect themselves. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, New Orleans built the largest flood barrier in the world.

But everyday measures can, in the long run, be more effective than extreme infrastructure. New Orleans has also invested in the Dutch method of “living with the water” — emphasizing natural infrastructure such as grass, woodlands and wetlands to soak up water, along with absorbent green rooftops and permeable pavements.

One factor that made Harvey so devastating was that, after it dumped 25 trillion gallons of water on the Texas coast, Houston’s flat landscape and heavy concrete coverage left much of that water with nowhere to go.

In North Carolina, the second-largest pork-producing state, there is concern that Florence could cause swine-waste lagoons to overflow, creating environmental and public health problems when bacteria-laden sludge mixes with floodwater. Farmers reinforce their lagoons against flooding, but Florence will put those structures to their sternest test yet.

Disasters like Florence are evidence of global climate change

Politics aside, the overwhelming body of scientific evidence demonstrates that our global climate is getting warmer as a result of human activity, and that warmer oceans cause increasingly dangerous hurricanes.

A hurricane like Florence is — or should be — a reminder of why sustainability is so important. Even when you’re specifying commercial plumbing fixtures.

Sloan's water-saving toilets, urinals and faucets don’t just save water — they save energy, too, because it takes massive amounts of energy to source, purify and deliver fresh water. And our carbon-neutral products guarantee that freshly planted trees will offset any atmosphere-warming carbon released when those products are produced.

Designing more sustainable commercial restrooms will not, of course, prevent the next Florence. But disasters like Florence remind us why we help our customers make sustainability a priority. Because if we don’t, who will?

Please help people affected by Hurricane Florence — visit the Hurricane Florence relief page of the American Red Cross.

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