Utilities added backup power after Irma to avert sewage overflow repeats, but enough?

More than 500 sewage overflows across Florida spilled at least 84 million gallons of wastewater after Hurricane Irma knocked out power Sept. 10, 2017.

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Tony Gaffoli knew he had a problem when brown, wretched water began bubbling out of the manhole in front of his Morning Sun Lane home just days after Hurricane Irma struck Florida last September.

Raw sewage mixed with rainwater flooded the North Naples neighborhood. Feces and toilet paper floated in the muck, which reached halfway up some driveways and soaked people’s yards.

“Not only are you dealing with nine and a half days with no power, the temperature was in the mid-90s. We couldn’t even open our doors to get some air because of the stench,” Gaffoli said.

Gaffoli’s neighborhood was not alone.

More than 500 sewage overflows across Florida spilled at least 84 million gallons of wastewater into roads, homes, parks and waterways after the hurricane knocked out much of the state’s power Sept. 10, 2017.

More: Hurricane Irma: One year later

With too few generators to power thousands of underground wastewater pumps, public utilities across the state found themselves unprepared to manage the massive, days-long outage.

Almost a year later, most utilities in Collier and Lee counties have purchased some new generators or other backup power supplies, or are planning to buy more in the coming months.

But the modest increase in backup power still is not enough to ensure there won’t be a repeat of last year’s toxic overflows, or an even more severe public health crisis, in the event of another monster storm or statewide power outage.

“Buying a generator to support every single station is impossible,” said Beth Johnssen, director of Collier County Utilities’ wastewater division. “We’re trying to find the sweet spot where it’s the best value for the payers’ money.”

More: Hurricane Irma: Timeline told in stories, photos, videos before, during and after the big storm hit

Not enough backup power

Because Florida is so flat, most utilities rely on a network of lift stations to pump wastewater — from toilets, sinks, showers, washing machines and garbage disposals — through underground pipes to wastewater treatment centers. Those pumps require power.

When Irma hit last year, Collier County Utilities had backup power for only about 10 percent of the 840 pump stations it maintained. That’s plenty of power for smaller, isolated outages, but it wasn’t nearly enough to handle Irma’s unprecedented scope.

The county self-reported 96 wastewater malfunctions and "abnormal events" after the storm.

At the time, Johnssen said adding 10, 20, or even 50 or 100 generators wouldn’t have solved Collier’s sewage problem. It would have required hundreds more.

In the last year, however, Collier responded by doing exactly that: adding 20 backup generators and diesel bypass pumps to its inventory. The utility also has completed a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant application for 53 more generators and bypass pumps, Johnssen said.

"It was a difficult time," Johnssen said of the days and weeks after Irma. "The more we can do to eliminate that from happening again, I think we're all happier in the long run." 

More: Hurricane Irma: Sewage backing up into Collier streets, homes, businesses

Collier also has had talks with its disaster recovery vendor, AshBritt Environmental, about strategies for staging emergency equipment before the next storm, Johnssen said. AshBritt staged in northern Florida before Irma, she said, and had to wait until the storm passed to head south.

“We recognize also that we need to be able to stand alone. That’s why we’re making this effort,” Johnssen said of the backup power supply purchases, acknowledging that the increased inventory is not enough to guarantee against future sewage overflows.

Other Southwest Florida utilities also made modest increases to their inventories of backup power.

Bonita Springs Utilities purchased six additional generators after Irma.

Naples added one portable generator, replaced three old generators and purchased one fixed diesel bypass station.

Fort Myers doubled its number of portable generators from eight to 16.

“We are confident this increased capacity gives us the flexibility needed to handle future weather events,” Stephanie Schaffer, a spokeswoman for Fort Myers utilities, said in an email.

Utilities in Marco Island, Lee County, Cape Coral, North Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres all have plans to purchase additional backup power supplies soon.

The Immokalee Water and Sewer District considered buying some new generators but found that prices increased significantly after the storm, said Eva Deyo, the district’s director.

More: Widespread sewage leaks after Irma showed Florida's dependence on electric pumps

The district is instead renting four generators from a vendor this year and will look again at purchasing generators next year, she said. Immokalee had two overflows after the hurricane, Deyo said.

“I think with the four rentals, that will be better,” Deyo said. “We’ll be in a better situation than we were last year.”

Little progress in Everglades City

A year after Irma, Everglades City still is facing the same sewage problems it had before the storm.

The city still has a rusty, rundown water treatment plant that should have been replaced years ago, and residents still rely on backyard grinder pumps to move sewage to the dilapidated plant.  

The small fishing village was one of the last places in the state to get power restored after Irma. And without power, the backyard pumps stopped operating and backed up. In some cases, stormwater that flooded homes lifted the sewage out and onto streets.

Residents had to relieve themselves in portable toilets, makeshift outhouses or destroyed bathrooms.

One man, Lee Marteeny, died from an infection after wading through toxic storm surge that county scientists found had fecal contamination so severe that it was beyond measurement. Another resident, David Curry, lost a leg after a small scrape became infected.

More: Hurricane Irma: Six months later

Mayor Howie Grimm said no sewage escaped from the water treatment plant before or after the storm. And he doesn’t believe much sewage actually came out of the backyard grinder pumps. Most of the contaminated water, he contends, was from offshore sediment churned up by the hurricane that deluged the community.

“I think there was some misconception that there was a lot of sewage in the streets, but it just wasn’t there, I believe,” he said.

The former manager of the city’s wastewater treatment plant, who was criticized for fleeing to North Carolina before the storm, is no longer employed by the city, Grimm said. The city has since hired a private firm, Veolia North America, to manage the plant.

Veolia officials did not respond to several requests for comment on steps they have taken to better protect Everglades City residents.

Replacing the wastewater treatment plant is Grimm’s focus.

“Right now the biggest hurdle is money,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been doing for the last year.”

More: Heavy rain, not enough generators adds up to sewage on Lee County streets after Irma

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No simple solutions

Jeff Pearson, utilities director for Cape Coral, said there are no simple solutions for preventing sewage overflows after a major hurricane.

Maintaining a giant fleet of backup generators is cost-prohibitive and inefficient. The generators could be unneeded for months, or sometimes years at a time, but utilities would still be required to run them under load occasionally.

Pearson suggested there be a statewide bank of portable generators that local utilities could tap into in case of an emergency. The generator bank could be maintained by the Florida Division of Emergency Management or the nonprofit Florida’s Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network, he said.

He’s also an advocate of beginning the process of moving powerlines underground.

“Power is the issue,” Pearson said. “It’s impossible when you have a major power outage … to prevent sanitary sewage overflows when you’re relying on the local electric company’s lines to be reliable.”

More: Hurricane Irma: Three months later

It’s also important for people to remember to conserve water before and after a storm. Even if some homes have power restored, the lift stations that pump their wastewater may not.

Naples only had six small sewage overflows after Irma. That was because there wasn’t much water flowing in the city, said Bob Middleton, director of Naples utilities.

“Where we were fortunate during this storm was a big percentage of the people evacuated,” Middleton said. “We weren’t receiving a whole lot of sewage because people weren’t using a whole lot of water.”

Other communities were not so fortunate.

Last year, after the sewage overflows in unincorporated Collier County, Johnssen said she wished they would have kept people’s water off for at least another day.  A year later, Johnssen said she now believes turning the water back on when the county did was the right move after all.

“That is a balancing act,” she said when asked about her previous statement. “I think, in retrospect, it’s prudent to have the water on and strive to educate people.

“Water conservation is the most helpful approach.”

More: Hurricane Irma: What's that smell?

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After Hurricane Irma, more than 28 million gallons of treated and untreated sewage spilled into 22 counties across Florida. View the archive video. Wochit

Steps Southwest Florida utilities have taken since Hurricane Irma to prevent sewage overflows:

Collier County

Collier County Utilities: The number of wastewater pump stations Collier County Utilities manages increased from 840 to about 870 due to development. But the utility department also has purchased 20 new backup power sources — portable generators and diesel bypass pumps —- and now has about 110 altogether, said Beth Johnssen, wastewater division director. The department also has completed a Federal Emergency Management Agency application for 53 more generators and bypass pumps, which is the county’s No. 1-ranked FEMA project, Johnssen said. The $4.5 million project would require a 25 percent local match.

The department also has purchased five fuel trailers and 100 GPS units to better locate, place and refuel generators after future storms.

Naples Utilities: Naples had 15 backup generators to power 123 pump stations before Irma. Immediately after the storm, the department purchased 10 more generators, for a total of 25, said Bob Middleton, the city’s utility director. The department has since added another portable generator, and replaced three older generators.

Naples has also added a new fixed diesel bypass station, bringing its total to 11, and plans to purchase four more fixed bypass stations next year, and five more over the two following years.

Marco Island Water & Sewer Department: Marco relied on 22 portable generators to power 105 pump stations after Hurricane Irma. The department has requested $200,000 in the city budget to purchase four new portable generators. It has also asked for $800,000 for preliminary work on a permanent standby generator for its source water facility near Collier Boulevard and U.S. 41 East. It also requested FEMA funding for the project, estimated to cost about $2 million, said Jeff Poteet, the utility’s general manager.

Immokalee Water & Sewer District: The Immokalee district has three permanent backup generators, three portable generators and a portable pump for its 41 lift stations. The district considered buying new generators after Irma, but found that prices had increased drastically, said Eva Deyo, the district’s director. Instead, it is renting four generators from a vendor this year, and will take another look at purchasing new generators next year.

Lee County

Lee County Utilities: When Irma hit, Lee County Utilities owned 51 permanent generators and 16 portable generators to power 640 lift stations. It was also borrowing 15 portable generators at the time, county spokeswoman Betsy Clayton said in an email. The utility has funding in next year’s budget to purchase and install three new permanent generators for the next two years. It also plans to purchase an additional 3,000-gallon fuel truck for refueling generators, begin stockpiling critical generator parts and create a new, budgeted generator technician position.

Bonita Springs Utilities: All 17 of Bonita’s master lift stations have fixed emergency generators. Since Hurricane Irma, the utility has purchased six additional generators to help power 342 lift stations in its service area, according to a news release.

Fort Myers Utilities & Solid Waste Division: After Irma hit, Fort Myers doubled the number of portable generators it maintains from eight to 16 to power 194 smaller lift stations and three master lift stations, city spokeswoman Stephanie Schaffer wrote in an email. Seven of the city’s 10 master lift stations have fixed generators.

Cape Coral Utilities: Cape Coral, which has about 300 pumping stations, rotated 23 portable generators to keep sewage flowing to the city’s treatment plant after Irma. The department is now buying eight new emergency bypass pumps and five more emergency generators, for a cost of $758,765, spokeswoman Maureen Buice said in an email.

The Florida Governmental Utility Authority: FGUA maintains 65 wastewater pump stations in Lehigh Acres and 107 pump stations in North Fort Myers, spokeswoman Donna Lizotte.

 FGUA is in the contracting phase for 10 new generators and three new bypass pumps in Lehigh, and four additional bypass pumps in North Fort Myers. Between the two regions, it currently has 20 backup power sources.

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