Experts said there are dangerous bacteria, other hazards in the water
SOUTHEASTERN N.C. -- The area's rivers and ocean water are still contaminated and should be avoided, at least until the weekend, an expert said.
Rachel Noble, a University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences microbiologist, said beaches will likely be safe to swim at this weekend as long as people stay at least 400 meters away from stormwater discharge pipes.
"By this weekend, I would be thinking that the water quality along our ocean beaches -- absent a stormwater input -- would be back to normal," said Noble, who has developed rapid tests for several species of bacteria found in water.
Tuesday, New Hanover County officials warned residents to avoid floodwaters due to the possibility of infection-causing bacteria and other environmental risks present. Those risks could, Noble warned, remain present in estuaries longer than people believe.
"Remember, they're shallow bodies of water, it's very flat. So even though there is a large amount of water, it takes a long time. It's more on the order of days and weeks than people think," Noble said.
Days before Hurricane Florence reached the North Carolina Coast, the N.C. Recreational Water Quality Program warned swimmers to stay out of the ocean until water could be tested to ensure bacteria levels were below federal and state standards.
"Excessive rains and flooding can cause high levels of bacteria in the water that can make people sick," J.D. Potts, the program's manager, said in a release, adding that floodwater can contain human and animal waste, dead wildlife and petroleum, among other chemicals.
The necessary tests have not happened yet because the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality's Wilmington office remains closed and the Morehead City office's air conditioner was damaged, forcing it to close.
"We will begin to test waters for swimming, at least in the central coastal area, as soon as the equipment is operational," Patricia Smith, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Marine Fisheries, said in an email.
Once testing equipment is online, Smith added, DEQ staff will look for enterococci, bacteria associated with the guts of warm-blooded animals. Although presence of the bacteria isn't dangerous to humans in itself, it is often found in the company of other bacteria and viruses that can cause a host of gastrointestinal issues and other ailments.
Wednesday, the N.C. Coastal Federation warned people should continue to avoid swimming or wading in estuaries and oceans because of the disease threat.
"We need to be loud and clear that swimming in coastal waters is currently a threat to public health, safety and welfare," Todd Miller, the Coastal Federation's executive director, said in a statement.
Private well concerns
New Hanover Regional Medical Center's (NHRMC) emergency department has not tracked storm-related infections, according to spokesman Julian March, but the hospital overall has not seen an uptick in infections.
NHRMC's emergency department started tracking exposures to floodwaters Wednesday, March said, so doctors will have that information should an infection later appear.
The hospital does urge residents to avoid wading through floodwater because of the possibility of bacteria and other hazards in the water, March said, as well as murkiness making it difficult to see and avoid stepping on sharp objects.
Of particular concern are vibrio bacteria -- about a dozen species that can cause skin infections in brackish water.
"They're always there in our aquatic systems," Noble said, "and they absolutely thrive in a condition like this where the waters are warm, stagnant and have a lot of organic matter in them like sediment, silt and a lot of turbidity."
To keep vibrio bacteria out of wounds, Noble recommended washing any open wound that has been immersed in or exposed to floodwaters with soap and water or hydrogen peroxide within an hour of exposure.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) also recommends not allowing children to play in floodwater, washing hands with soap and water before every meal and washing anything that has come into contact with floodwater with a bleach solution.
Another threat is drinking water, particularly wells that have been flooded. DHHS has made free drinking water test kits available through county health department that will determine if fecal coliform bacteria is present in wells.
"If they have a private well that has been submerged, then there's a chance it could have been contaminated," Noble said. "A lot of people in the more rural areas of Wilmington have private wells. They should get it tested."
Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com.