The full scope of Hurricane Ian’s environmental impacts may not be known for months, but federal records provide an early glimpse of some of the damage dealt by the historically powerful storm.
The snapshot of potential impacts — reported to the federal government by local agencies, corporations and private citizens — already paints a grim picture:
Thousands of gallons of boat fuel from sunken vessels fouling Florida’s waters; chemicals released from a storm-damaged warehouse; more than 2,000 gallons of disinfectant leaking from a county-operated water utility pipeline.
The list goes on: A storage tank with hundreds of gallons of gasoline dumping into a historic river; a boat leaking fuel just outside a St. Petersburg home; a man who reported trouble breathing after finding a “green sludge” in his flooded Lee County condo.
These reports were logged by the National Response Center between landfall on Sept. 28 and Tuesday. The center, staffed by the U.S. Coast Guard, is an emergency call center that keeps track of potential environmental emergencies related to oil and chemical spills, then notifies the proper response agencies.
For southwest Florida, “everything was turned upside down,” said Richard Stumpf, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Runoff from heavy rainfall can be seen from space, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Seagrasses may have been ripped out from storm surge. In local areas, sewage spills and gasoline from boats may take a while to dilute, he said.
“It’s going to look different,” Stumpf said. “There’s just a lot of things that are going to change.”
Gas, chemicals, smelly “sludge” all problems post-Ian
As of Tuesday morning, the National Response Center had processed 25 incident reports related to Hurricane Ian, according to a written statement provided by the Coast Guard. Most of them were about sunken vessels, but others included gasoline and chemical spills, records show.
In one instance, a caller reported a 550-gallon storage tank filled with 400 gallons of gasoline turned over and poured into the Peace River in Arcadia. A representative for Tennessee-based petroleum company, Rogers Petroleum Inc., first reported the spill just after 2 p.m. Sunday in a call that lasted five minutes, federal records show.
The company isn’t taking responsibility for the spill. They say the storage tank belonged to a nearby marina, and that their own tank was moved to higher ground, according to Tommy Bounds, the safety and compliance director for Rogers Petroleum. Bounds was the one who made the call to the NRC, he said.
“It was our responsibility to do the right thing, and to try to let people know that this was a possibility,” Bounds said in a phone interview Tuesday. But the spill hasn’t been publicly announced, and the marina mentioned by Bounds did not respond to requests for comment to verify his claims.
Around 6:30 p.m. on the night of landfall, a Walmart distribution center, also in Arcadia, reported their system shut down after the facility’s roof was damaged in the storm. There was an “unknown amount” of anhydrous ammonia that was released, but no injuries were reported, according to the response center’s database.
In a statement, Walmart acknowledged the damaged facility, but did not address the ammonia leaks. “Many of our facilities were damaged during Hurricane Ian, including a distribution center in Arcadia,” wrote spokesperson Robert Arrieta.
A county-operated water treatment facility off U.S. Highway 27 in Polk County reported Thursday that 2,300 gallons of sodium hypochlorite leaked from a service pipeline during the storm. Human exposure to the chemical, which is similar to a strong bleach, can cause eye and skin irritation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A storage tank’s pipe “came loose and spilled the contents onto the ground,” according to Tamara Richardson, director of Polk County Utilities. It happened during the peak of the storm, when staff members were sheltering inside, she said.
“We don’t expect any problems,” Richardson said. “It didn’t leave the site, and the public was never in jeopardy.”
Jaime Ziadie, 65, was asked by the president of his condominium association to call the emergency hotline after their property in Bonita Springs was overrun by a foul-smelling “green sludge” the day Hurricane Ian made landfall.
Ziadie, who has asthma, said he has been having trouble breathing when he has been near the substance, which was still fouling his home at Spanish Harbor Condominiums nearly a week after it arrived. The waterway behind his condo had overturned boats in the wake of the storm, he said in an interview.
“I can’t go down there, it’ll start to kill me,” he said, referring to the muck in the stairwells and outside his home.
Ziadie has lived through several hurricanes, including Irma in 2017, and the water level in his backyard would always start to rise. But “this time was different. This was a bad one. I suspect it’s more than just water this time. It’s this muddy, mildewy, sewage stuff,” he said.
The National Response Center wrote down Ziadie’s contact information Sept. 29 and told him they’d send him a written report with more details. Five days later, he still hadn’t heard back, and he remains without power or internet, he said.
“We were flooded by Irma, but it wasn’t like this,” he said. “Mother Nature is regurgitating all the poisons we put into her oceans.”
Sunken vessels are majority of emergency spill calls
Many callers were also reporting sunken vessels that dumped gasoline into the water. The response center, which can average up to 100 calls per day in the summer, logged at least eight calls about sunken vessels leaking oil into waterways, including east coast incidents in the St. Johns River, the Indian River Lagoon and Maule Lake in Miami-Dade County, records show.
The number of unreported gasoline spills from damaged or sunken boats, though, is likely way higher: Aerial images from some of the hardest-hit areas, like San Carlos Island near Fort Myers Beach, show a telltale rainbow sheen on top of the water near where a boats from a shrimp fleet lay mangled and battered on dry land.
One caller reported “a release of diesel” after their boat sank into the St. Johns River. Another reported a sunken cabin cruiser leaked fuel in the water outside their St. Petersburg home. Yet another caller owned a boat they say sank near the Legacy Harbour Marina in Fort Myers, one of the hardest-hit spots in Lee County.
On Thursday, yachts were piled on top of one another beside the former marina, mangled and in disarray.
The owner’s boat was full of water before it sank there, the response centers notes read.
“A total loss.”
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.
THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.