The Environmental Impacts of Flooding and How to Protect Against Them

Written by Teri Hatch

Throughout the northeast and mid-Atlantic regions of the country, communities are dealing with the many ramifications of flooding caused by Irene and exacerbated by Lee.  As my family attempts to drain a basement that seems likely to be inundated with more water at the next hint of rain, I began to wonder about the environmental consequences of all this flooding.  The news media that I follow, however, are not covering that aspect of the floods, as they continue to focus on the economic cost of all that water.  As it turns out, flooding can have serious environmental costs to the individuals and the communities involved.

A paper written by Burrell E. Montz of Binghamton University’s Department of Geology and Environmental Studies delineates some of the many environmental hazards posed by flooding.  Much of the risk involves contamination, which can range from less serious, accidental contamination by household products that leak into the water systems to more serious contamination of human water sources or plant and animal ecosystems.  It is easy to imagine how these ecosystems can be completely destroyed by rapid, overwhelming flooding, seriously endangering the species that inhabit them.  On a personal note, my current town has been reeling from flooding ever since Irene hit, and one of the many ramifications is that the town’s water has been deemed unsafe and all residents are being told to drink bottled water.  I can only imagine the carbon footprint created by my town’s bottled water consumption, let alone that of all the similarly affected towns across the east coast.

A number of factors can influence the severity of the environmental threat posed by flooding. Montz reports that “depth of water, velocity of flows, and duration of inundation, in combination with land-use attributes” can all impact the environmental damage posed.  It makes sense of course that areas with faster and greater volumes of water would take the greatest hit, but we may not immediately think that areas intended for specific purposes may be more prone to environmental damage.  For example, farmland would be in great danger because vast acres of cleared land are left without the protection that trees can provide.  The devastation would be magnified in farm areas where pesticides or other chemicals are used, since they would be flooded into water systems at high rates.

Of course, there are ways in which we can adequately prepare and therefore lessen the potential for serious environmental harm.  Sandbagging can reduce the risk of flooding in certain areas, which would obviously decrease the risk of secondary environmental effects.  Montz also recommends being mindful of all household chemicals and potentially hazardous materials beforehand, as to avoid letting them be washed into the flood waters.  Residents should also severely limit water use in their homes during the heavy rains that lead to flooding, because town water waste and treatment facilities are likely so overburdened that household use just compounds the threat of flooding.

Regions across the country are now being reminded that preparedness can save resources, human lives, and environmental integrity.  Unfortunately, natural disasters like floods often remind individuals and communities of the costs associated with some of our current ways of life.  In one such instance, a town in Pennsylvania is suffering after a different generation, forty years prior, decided to forego the protection of extra levees in favor of picturesque river views (New York Times).  Reflection on the environmental implications to the whole region adds yet another dimension of consideration for communities weighing similar options.

Floods can be ruinous, and portions of our country may be victimized by flooding as an unavoidable result of severe weather patterns.  However, it is important to know how you can minimize damage to your family, property, and even natural environment.  Whether or not you have been lucky enough to escape Irene’s and Lee’s wraths, please take a moment to consider your flood preparedness plan.  The state of New York’s Department of Health has a thorough online reference to help you prepare for floods, and other states across the country have comparable resources immediately available.  A little consideration and forethought may go a long way in protecting your home and community.


New York Department of Health’s Flood Preparedness Guide:



Works Cited

“Flood Preparedness.” New York State Department of Health. Web. 13 Sept. 2011. <http://www.health.state.ny.us/environmental/emergency/flood/>.

Montz, Burrell E. “Quick Response Report #93 – The Environmental Impacts of Flooding in St. Maries, Idaho.” University of Colorado Boulder. 7 Feb. 1997. Web. 13 Sept. 2011. <http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/research/qr/qr93/qr93.html>.

Saulny, Susan. “A Choice Made Decades Ago Comes Back to Haunt a Town.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 11 Sept. 2011. Web. 12 Sept. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/12/us/12flood.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=levee%20or%20view&st=cse>.


About the author

Teri Hatch

Teri graduated Summa Cum Laude from the Honors Program at the University of New Hampshire with a BA in Political Science, Spanish, and Adolescent and Youth Development. She is currently an M.S.Ed candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Development. Teri passionately believes in the invaluable role that early education can play in building a more sustainable future, and she therefore plans to devote her career to environmental education and awareness.

1 Comment

  • Thanks for the input on the impact of the floods. I’ve only had flooding in my home once, and it was when they shut down the storm sewers in the suburbs of Chicago, since they couldn’t handle the downpour of water. We had minimal impact. It’s great that you are writing about this so others understnad. My prayers are with you. I’ve gone organic in my yard to help the water stream.