When electricity is out and pumps aren’t operating at hundreds of sewage lift stations, hook up generators. When power is out at gas stations to run pumps, switch to generators. When nursing homes lose power, activate generators. When traffic lights are out because they don’t have juice, hook up a generator. When elevators are out at high-rises because the electricity isn’t working, run them off generators. When schools are transformed to emergency evacuation shelters and don’t have power, run them off generators.
This is part of the list of challenges Southwest Florida experienced during unprecedented Hurricane Irma where we’ve heard suggestions offered that pointed to the same solution: use a generator.
One major concern that arose since Hurricane Irma made landfall is that sewage pump stations without power restored were causing a public health risk because of an overflow into the streets. That’s a serious issue.
Though Collier County was where Irma made landfall as a Category 3, the same sewage overflow issue has arisen in Lee County. The Naples Daily News recently reported on wastewater spills in Irma-removed places, from counties that are home to Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, St. Petersburg and Daytona Beach.
It was November 2005, after Southwest Florida experienced hurricanes Charley and Wilma, when then-Gov. Jeb Bush raised the generator question in the context of whether new gasoline service stations should be required to have a switch to go from electricity to generator. Sewage pumping stations weren’t part of that equation.
Why isn’t the answer for all of these post-hurricane challenges to “use a generator?”
We can’t say it better than Naples City Manager Bill Moss, who addressed the question during a recent City Council briefing on the storm.
“The problem with having too many generators is that you may only use them once every 10 years,” he said. “You just can’t bring them out once every 10 years and expect them to work. They have to be utilized every month. They have to be put under a load.”
Moss used 10 years in his scenario, but we can’t recall nor find reports of sewage lift station concerns arising in Collier and south Lee counties in the aftermath of hurricanes Charley and Wilma 12 years ago.
Perhaps we’ll have another major storm within 10 years, but the last hurricane of this magnitude to go through Collier and Lee counties was Donna in 1960. Technology changes in those 57 years have been dramatic, to say the least. That trend should be expected to continue for decades to come.
Even having generators stored in a warehouse for when they are needed isn’t a guarantee. Collier schools Superintendent Kamela Patton said during a recent briefing that 14 generators were damaged during the storm. Patton also said the district had to buy 100-gallon fuel containers to avoid the constant repetition that would have been required of filling generators with 5-gallon cans.
We all know the difficulties we encountered with the availability of fuel before and after Irma.
Are there solutions other than connecting a generator at every location one might be needed should we have another Irma some day?
Would more underground electrical lines, while an expensive proposition, get power restored faster to lift stations, gas stations, elevators, traffic lights and nursing homes?
Moss noted the city is progressively adding diesel bypass pumps to its sewer system. Are ratepayers and taxpayers where there are utilities willing to ante up to expedite adding these if that’s deemed a solution?
Power companies have an established pecking order for where power gets restored first. Are areas with lift stations high enough on the priority list?
Should evacuees not be allowed to return to stay in neighborhoods until utility systems are again operational, so nobody is running washing machines and dishwashers that put undue demands on sewer systems?
Buying more generators certainly is worth considering when local government agencies begin to evaluate how response to the hurricane was handled. But it must be put through a careful analysis of costs, benefits and alternative solutions.