Hurricane Ian supercharged our existing water problems. What now?

In the post-Hurricane Ian NASA satellite image above, swirls of sediment stirred up in Florida’s coastal water starkly contrast with dark plumes of stormwater runoff exiting the land.

And now, flesh-eating bacteria.

Media reports this week note that Florida has seen 65 Vibrio vulnificus so far this year; the bacteria can cause sepsis, intestinal infections and necrotizing fasciitis.

It’s the highest number of cases ever recorded in Florida, which began keeping records in 2008. Lee County, epicenter of Hurricane Ian, leads the state with 29 cases — and four deaths.

State health officials say sewage spills caused by Hurricane Ian increased bacteria levels in floodwaters and standing water left by the storm; people with open wounds, cuts or scratches can be exposed via direct contact or by eating raw or undercooked oysters and shellfish.

Vibrio occurs naturally in the warm, salty waters around south Florida barrier islands and estuaries, and every year sees a few cases. But the explosion this year is yet another unfortunate demonstration of how Ian supercharged our existing water problems.

Elsewhere on Florida’s hard-hit Gulf coast, experts are worried that the storm could trigger — or worsen — another red tide event.

To be sure, we don’t know for sure whether nutrients and other bad stuff flushed into streams, the Caloosahatchee River and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico will result in algal blooms. But severe red tide can occur after a big hurricane blows through; major blooms took place the years following hurricanes Charley and Irma.

And given everything we know went into the water — but how much? And what else? — problems have to be expected. Consider this CBS News story:

Among the reports are several instances of sunken vessels, leaking diesel, the release of 2,300 gallons of sodium hypochlorite (bleach) from a pipeline, and in one case, an “unknown green sludge” at an apartment complex that a resident claims was causing respiratory issues. …

Dave Tomasko, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program… (said) trucks caught in floodwaters are leaking out battery acid and gasoline… and there are many flooded properties wrought with pesticides and herbicides that are now getting washed into waterways.

The water, Tomasko said, “looks like root beer, smells like dead fish rolled into compost.”

Think we can expect problems down the line? After all, it’s not like our waters were in fabulous shape before Ian came along.

To put it in human terms, our waters had “pre-existing conditions” — and the hammer blow from Hurricane Ian will ultimately be all the more devastating for it.

But you know how it goes in Florida: Months from now, when the problems manifest themselves, apologists — elected officials — will say there’s nothing we could have done to prevent them. But that won’t be wholly true.

We could have been more resilient had we done more to fix our existing problems, had we cracked down on polluters, adopted the recommendations of the Red Tide and Blue-Green Algae Task Forces and more.

But here’s the good news: We can still do all these things, to better prepare us for the next storm we all know is coming.