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Jim Guidry Commentaries
Officials Re-Focus on Hurricane Ike's Toxic Storm Surge
by Jim Guidry
Sunday, August 15, 2010

Although Galveston residents were assured on January 22, 2009 that the island was safe, the University of Texas Medical Branch on Tuesday will host a workshop to focus on toxins left by Hurricane Ike. More

John Sullivan, director for toxic assistance at UTMB’s Sealy Center for Environmental Health and Medicine, will conduct the workshop. A UTMB news release said that the workshop will review the damage done to the Galveston area by Hurricane Ike and will include information on which toxins were found in the sediment that washed over the island and how to avoid long-term exposure to the heavy metals found, such as lead and arsenic.

“Given the area’s legacy of lead poisoning among children, we will also discuss specific warnings to prevent exposure, and how to make your home, workplace, and children’s environment safer,” Sullivan said.

The toxic storm surge that covered Galveston Island was a surprise to many of us who were reared on the Texas Gulf Coast and were veterans of many hurricanes and tropical storms.  We feared a storm surge like the one that accompanied the 1900 Storm, which drowned 6,000 people.  We were told to "run from the water and hide from the wind" when a major storm approaches. 

But the toxic mud that came with Ike's surge, sometimes described as having a gooey, Vaseline-like texture, was totally disgusting.  It was more than salt water.  

Salt water from the Gulf of Mexico that swept through the entrance to the Houston and Galveston Ship Channels and San Luis Pass had swelled Galveston Bay to an enormous proportion, stirred the previously shallow water of the bay, churning up all of the toxic sludge on the bottom; and then swept it over Galveston Island, flooding 75 percent of the structures.  The toxic sludge did not stop at the doors and windows of the buildings.  No, it flooded the bottom floors in an agitator motion that has been described as like a washing machine.

And it left an inches deep coating on everything that had been flooded.  It was nasty and it is not surprising that it was toxic.

Many people were concerned, but City Manager Steve LeBlanc seized upon a UTMB report that had been requested by the Galveston County Health District.  LeBlanc said the report revealed that sediment from Hurricane Ike was not posing a major public health concern. Listen: RealPlayer  MP3 

"The good news for Galveston residents is that none of these tests results revealed a major public health concern," said a news release from the county.  "In fact, none of the tests results exceeded state government levels requiring special actions for clean-up." Release

However, the statement was qualified.

“The fact that the levels are not a major health threat is good news," said Galveston County Health Authority Dr. Mark Guidry. "However, we still encourage residents to protect themselves when handling any unknown substance in the environment. Wear a protective mask to avoid inhaling dusts, and wear gloves and protective clothing to avoid skin exposure.  Avoid bringing dust and contaminated items into your home.  Always wash and clean up prior to eating.”  

About that time there was a fly-hatching in my neighborhood that caused Lynda and me additional concern.  These flies were lethargic and buzzed about in such a way that they could be swatted easily in the air.

"You know, we are breathing the same air as those flies," I remarked.

At that time, Lynda and I were preparing to move home and headquarters to Houston, a decision we had made prior to Ike, but the aftermath of the toxic storm surge, and the city's reluctance to treat it as a hazard, made our decision seem more sound.

In retrospect, it appears that while it cannot be said that the city "covered up" the threat, I certainly think that it was "sugar-coated."

I am pleased that UTMB is revisiting the issue. The Post-Ike Environmental Health and Toxins Workshop is scheduled from 10 a.m. to noon on Tuesday, August 17, at the Island Community Center, 4700 Broadway Boulevard in Galveston.

Remembering Jim Guidry Lest We Forget

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