Resident Perceptions of Environmental Pollution in Recreational Areas Flooded by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas.

Author:Horney, Jennifer A.


Hurricane Harvey made landfall along the coast of Texas as a Category 4 storm on August 26, 2017. The storm moved slowly over the Houston metropolitan area--an area larger than New Jersey with 6 million residents and >20 Superfund sites--and became the wettest tropical cyclone on record. Record precipitation resulted in flooding called "catastrophic, historical, devastating, and life-threatening" by the National Weather Service (2017). Extensive flooding potentially exposed residents of Houston to a variety of chemicals and toxins (Friedrich, 2017; Schwartz, Tuminello, et al., 2018). Flooding in Houston typically is controlled in part by Buffalo Bayou, a 500-acre watershed that includes a 53-mile "river" flowing east from Katy, Texas, to the Houston Ship Channel, as well as other creeks and bayous connected to a network of parks and trails around the city (City Parks Alliance, n.d.; University of Massachusetts [UMass], 2006). Over time, these flood control areas have become much more highly urbanized--more than 80% of Buffalo Bayou is now developed and more than 450,000 residents live there--which has led to more frequent and more extensive flooding (UMass, 2006).

In addition to providing a buffer against flooding, parks in Buffalo Bayou offer a number of public recreational activities, including nature trails, bike paths, children's playgrounds, and dog parks. Adverse impacts on the health of residents have been documented due to the relatively poor quality of Houston's environment, particularly in the areas adjacent to the Houston Ship Channel (Corgey, 2015; Harper, 2004; Harris County Healthcare Alliance, 2015; Linder, Marko, & Sexton, 2008; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2006; Walker, Coker, Symanski, & Lupo, 2006). Unprecedented flooding resulting from Hurricane Harvey, as well as the subsequent release of floodwater from Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, led to the movement of contaminated sediments along Buffalo Bayou and into adjacent recreational areas. In the months after Hurricane Harvey, some parks near Buffalo Bayou had up to 6 ft of accumulated sediment covering trails (KPRC Houston, 2017; West, 2017).

Parks and other recreational spaces are an important part of urban communities, with a large body of literature demonstrating the relationship between the quality and accessibility of green spaces and public health benefits (Gies, 2006; Lee & Maheswaran, 2011; Srinivasan, O'Fallon, & Dearry, 2003). In addition to potential physical and mental health benefits, parks and green spaces can provide a respite from urban heat (e.g., providing shade and evapotranspirational cooling) (Brown, Vanos, Kenny, & Lenzholzer, 2015; McPherson, 1994) and can be an important element of urban stormwater management (Brody & Highfield, 2013; Yang & Li, 2013). Parks and recreational areas can also play a role in addressing disparities related to physical activity, mental health, and general public health, particularly if planners and other city officials explicitly consider factors related to accessibility and utilization (Taylor, Floyd, Whitt-Glover, & Brooks, 2007; Wolch, Byrne, & Newell, 2014).

Parks and green spaces are challenged to fulfill these many potential benefits when impacted by a disaster. Parks can be directly damaged as a result of flooding, wind damage to trees or landscaping, or blowing debris. Disaster damages to parks can potentially limit their use by residents, particularly by residents from disaster-impacted neighborhoods (Bedimo-Rung et al., 2008; Rung, Broyles, Mowen, Gustat, & Sothern, 2011). The potential public health benefits provided by parks can be counteracted by the potential or perceived risks involved in postdisaster use of parks, including an increase in exposure to disease vectors such as mosquitos that can breed in flooded areas, injuries due to debris and unsafe environments, or environmental contamination (Paterson, Wright, & Harris, 2018). Furthermore, parks might also be utilized for other purposes as part of disaster response and recovery in ways that limit their use by residents and limit their benefits to communities. For example, 6 months after Hurricane Katrina, 20% of the parks assessed were being utilized for other purposes, including housing Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers or as trash repositories (Bedimo-Rung et al., 2008).

The use of parks for stormwater management can help to moderate flooding by increasing the area covered by pervious surfaces (Brody, Sebastian, Blessing, & Bedient, 2018). For example, the City of Mesa, Arizona, operates 133 ponds, floodways, and wetlands that serve as both stormwater management areas and parks for recreational use (Pannell, 2013). The utilization of parks and recreational areas for flood mitigation, however, can raise concerns for public health. For example, past studies in Houston have documented the presence of pesticides from agricultural runoff, indicator bacteria from sewage, and other toxic chemicals in Buffalo Bayou (Smyer, 2008; West, 2016). These types of contaminants can be transported in soils and sediments during floods and deposited along the bayou in parks used by residents for recreational activities, as well as in nearby residential neighborhoods (Horney et al., 2018).

The role of parks and green spaces in mitigating the disproportionate burden of environmental challenges experienced by low-income and racial/ethnic minorities can also be interrupted by disasters. Disasters may be viewed as an opportunity for governments to close parks or relocate recreational amenities. For example, after Hurricane Mitch, the government of Honduras relocated ethnic minority populations who had previously lived in Celaque National Park, to focus on the development of ecotourism in the post-disaster period (Timms, 2011). During the immediate postdisaster response, remediation of parks and recreational areas might not be a priority for responding organizations. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, community parks must typically use their regular recreational budgets for disaster recovery, limiting their ability to provide regular programs, services, and maintenance after disasters (Pannell, 2013). Before a disaster, parks in low-income and minority communities already have fewer and lower-quality amenities, less wooded areas, and more trash, characteristics that can be intensified by disaster impacts (Bruton & Floyd 2014; Suminski et al., 2012).

Prior research in cities such as Los Angeles, California; Baltimore, Maryland; and Greensboro, North Carolina, has demonstrated that parks in low-income or majority-minority neighborhoods are more likely to be, or to be perceived as, crowded, unsafe, or close to sources of pollution (Boone, Buckley, Grove, & Sister, 2009; Hughey et al., 2016; Sister, Wolch, & Wilson, 2010). Proximity to transportation infrastructure and other sources of pollution in parks located in low-income or minority neighborhoods can lead to higher concentrations of various contaminants, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (Choi et al., 2009) and organochlorine pesticides (Li et al., 2008). After a disaster, urban park users can be exposed to contaminants that are redistributed to nearby recreational area soils through ingestion, inhalation, and dermal routes (Li et al., 2008).

Although parks and other recreational areas can serve as an asset to communities during recovery from disasters, few studies have considered the impact of disasters on resident perceptions of environmental...

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