Rice teams collect floodwater for study

Faculty, graduate students gather samples to record storm’s environmental legacy

Qilin Li

Homeowner Vivian Chen documents damage while Rice students collect floodwater samples from her Bunker Hill home. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Wearing waders and face masks, Rice Professors Qilin Li, Lauren Stadler and Pedro Alvarez and graduate students explored the natural laboratory that Tropical Storm Harvey’s floodwaters created in Houston’s neighborhoods and beyond. They were on a mission to collect samples of floodwater for analysis.

The Rice professors of civil and environmental engineering and experts in water quality led the effort in Houston and beyond.

“The first day (Aug. 30), some locations were heavily flooded, so we were able to wade in the water and get some samples from the street,” Li said on the Sunday after the storm, after collecting inside a Memorial home. “The most challenging has been today, because the home was only accessible by boat. We were very lucky to have gotten access to a boat.”

Li and the students split into two- and three-member teams to gather samples from neighborhoods near Brays and Buffalo bayous, Cypress Creek, Memorial, the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs and Katy, while Stadler coordinated from campus and reached out to the Houston Health Department. Their intention has been, and will be, to collect data from flooded areas to study Harvey’s short- and long-term impact on water quality and related public health issues.

Members of Rice's civil and environmental engineering labs collect water samples from a flooded home.

Members of Rice’s civil and environmental engineering labs collect water samples from a flooded home. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Li said analysis will look for signs of chemical and biological contaminants in floodwaters. “We don’t want this to be just a short-term study,” she said. “We want to look at the dynamics of the contaminants, how quickly they show up in the floodwater and, once the floodwater recedes, how quickly or slowly they go away.”

The teams’ focus on homes became an imperative after the first few days, because water found inside has been standing still since the flood. “When you go in, you can smell things already,” Li said. “Some homes have the rotten-egg smell, suggesting hydrogen sulfide from the anaerobic growth of bacteria.”

Loading out at day's end.

Loading out at day’s end. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

The team has support from the Houston Health Department on the analysis of the water samples, and the results will be used to inform public health decisions by the city. They will also work with Rice Professor of Statistics Katherine Ensor, Professor in the Practice Loren Raun, who also serves as the city’s chief environmental science officer, and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research to make the results publicly accessible.

“Once the water goes away, we will start to do soil and sediment sampling.” Li said. “In the meantime, we will do follow-up sampling at the locations we have sampled. We’re also very interested in looking at the Superfund sites and refineries that were flooded.”



About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.