Engineering Students Fight the Flood

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When disaster strikes, engineering students respond. Specifically, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, students from engineering departments in the area leapt at the chance to be of use.

Some of that leaping wasn’t, technically, a matter of choice. Sarah Slayton, for instance, is a chemical, biological, radiological nuclear specialist at the Ingram School of Engineering. She’s also a National Guardsman. “Our unit was activated on the 28th of August, which was the first day of the fall semester,” she says.

Her well-defined area of expertise had little to do with Slayton’s work during the first stages of the catastrophe. “When they send you, they don’t care what your job is—if they need you to sit around and pass out blouses all day long, and drive to get boots, that’s what you’re doing.” And that’s what she did.

But however seemingly tame her task—compared, to, say, pulling people out of the water, she, and her fellow guardsmen were thrilled to be part of the effort. “Everybody was really excited to go down,” she says. “Everyone there was happy to be helping out. It was hard work, but that’s what we’re trained for and that’s what we love to do. Everyone was pretty happy, and kinda wet.”

Other students, like a handful from Houston’s Rice University, put their engineering skills more directly to use, even if it meant straying from their area of research. “The first week after the rain had cleared up I got a call from my advisor,” says Seth Pedersen, a graduate researcher in the environmental engineering department.

With several other students from the department, Pedersen donned gloves and waders and set out to collect water samples from homes and bayous. Flood waters wash out sewer systems and pass through chemical facilities, so “it’s pretty certain and unsurprising that the flood water would be contaminated,” he says.
But just how contaminated was a bit unexpected. “The contamination overall was four times the typical safe level for swimming. But some samples had 135 times the safe level of bacteria.”

Fecal mater, heavy metals, organics, and other industrial chemicals have all contributed to making the water extremely toxic. “My recommendation would be to wear safety gear, avoid skin exposure, and don’t play in water—treat it as a hazardous substance.”

But Pedersen’s work looks well beyond the short term. “The bigger question is more academic,” he says. “Trying to understand why this happens, so, in the future, when these things do happen, we can take measures to reduce the harm.” To that end he is also taking soil samples to see how such extreme flooding contaminates the soil and how long it remains contaminated. 

Like Slayton, Pedersen is grateful to do his part helping the area, though, strictly speaking, it’s not part of his research. “No it won’t make it into the PhD thesis, but we’re environmental engineers. We care about clean water,” he says. “Being out there in the field and doing environmental research in the world—it’s been a great thing to be a part of.”