As Hurricane Michael makes its way towards the coast of Florida, residents are preparing for what experts warn could be the first Category 4 hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle. With flooding and damaging winds forecasted to make landfall Wednesday, the hurricane threatens serious damage to the area. However, one major risk is largely overlooked.

The state of emergency declarations put in place by Florida Governor Rick Scott currently includes a total of 35 Florida counties. Not only does the order provide for approximately 5,500 soldier sand airmen available from the Florida National Guard, it also allows for 30,000 personnel to be brought in from other states. Meanwhile, the National Hurricane Center has issued a warning on their official Twitter account, stating “#Michael could produce three life-threatening hazards along portions of the northeastern Gulf Coast: storm surge, heavy rainfall, and hurricane-force winds, with storm surge and hurricane watches in effect. Residents in these areas should follow advice given by local officials.”

While the hurricane itself is certainly a significant risk, many are worried about a danger that they claim currently isn’t getting enough attention. A phenomenon known as the ‘red tide’ began in October 2017 and has continued to grow and spread at an alarming rate. A bloom of incredibly harmful algae has taken hold of the region’s waters, killing off wildlife at an alarming rate and releasing toxic fumes into the air. Local residents have been warned to avoid beaches, stay out of the water and not to breathe the toxic air that currently lingers near the coast.

What does it mean for area wildlife? The once beautiful beaches that drew tourists to Florida’s coast is now a grim sight, covered with thousands of dead sea creatures including fish, dolphins, turtles, manatees, and more.

“It’s just like a ghost town,” reflects Heather Barron, the Medical and Research Director at Florida’s Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW). “Anything that can leave has, and anything that couldn’t leave has died.”

The coming storm, however, has many worried about how the arrival of Hurricane Michael may impact the red tide. “There are two possibilities,” advised Dr. David Hastings, a professor of Marine Science and Chemistry at Eckerd College. “The hopeful one is that strong winds from the hurricane blow red tide offshore.” In this way, the hurricane may actually help to dissipate the algae, bringing relief to the suffering area. However, there is another frightening possibility.

The second scenario could bring serious risk should it bring the significant rainfall that many are predicting. “The heavy rain will dilute farm and agriculture areas of all the nutrients, nitrates, phosphates and rain them into the beaches and coastal areas that serve to fertilize the red tide – exactly what we don’t want,” he explained.

Not only might the heavy rains encourage the growth of the algae bloom, but the storm could also facilitate the transfer of algae and toxins from the coast inland, spreading the toxic air throughout the area and contaminating drinking water sources. Due to this risk, residents in the area are urged to heed any evacuation orders that may arise. Not only are these in place to protect residents from the damage associated with the storm, but they may be the only way to keep your family safe from these toxic effects.

Image via KRMG

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