Environmental Engineer Tests Water Quality on Hurricane-Damaged Island

C. Sunny JiangDec. 4, 2017 - UC Irvine environmental engineer Sunny Jiang traveled to the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas last month (Nov. 17-28), three months after two Category 5 hurricanes (Irma and Maria) struck the region.  As part of a National Science Foundation RAPID Response research project, Jiang and her U.S. Geological Survey collaborator Christina Kellogg gathered samples for water quality testing.

Most of the island still has no power, and the more than 50,000 residents are relying on rainwater as their main water source, with little information on its quality. Even less is known of the impact of human sewage on coastal waters in the absence of electricity for adequate wastewater treatment. The roads are full of potholes big enough to break an axle.

The researchers took water from cisterns in residential homes and from bays and channels around the island. They interviewed more than 100 residents of various social and economic statuses to learn about their challenges and concerns.

“We heard a lot of touching stories,” said Jiang, professor and chair of the UCI civil and environmental engineering department. “One single mother of two children told us about her daily struggle to use the limited charcoal that she can afford to make food for her children. She was out of water, power and a job for nearly three months, living in a mold- and mosquito-infested home.”

The water samples are being transported back to the U.S. by a University of Miami research vessel. Jiang’s team will analyze the samples for contaminants and model the health risks. They hope the results will help the island’s community to manage water in the hurricanes’ aftermath and to identify priorities for post-hurricane relief and future policy decisions on disaster preparation. “We hope this effort will assist the underprivileged island communities to get on their feet, accelerate the recovery process and rebuild their island paradise,” said Jiang.

-- Lori Brandt