Heroism Is All in a Day's Work for These Wastewater Operators

Clean-water organizations recognize professionals who went above and beyond to protect communities, facilities and people.

One can easily argue that water professionals do heroic deeds every day, whether supplying safe drinking water or protecting water resources from pollution and people from disease.

The reality is they are often heroic in other ways, as well. The Water Environment Federation and the Water Environment Association of Texas recently recognized a number of people for exceptional service in tough situations.

Perhaps the most dramatic deed was recognized by the WEAT with a 2020 Medal of Honor for Heroism Award. Ralph Hect and the team at Houston Water’s Cullen Maintenance Facility pulled off a daring rescue during Hurricane Harvey.

Rising waters

On the evening of Aug. 25, 2017, the streets near the facility were flooded and the water was rising. Hect, a maintenance supervisor, made it to the facility in his heavy-duty pickup truck. Later he and colleagues discovered a man in a wheelchair who had become trapped in the floodwaters, rising in a torrential rain.

They called 911, but believing that the Houston Fire Department might not arrive in time, Hect waded into the water. The man’s electric wheelchair did not work and wouldn’t go into a manual mode; the water was at the level of the man’s chest and rising.

Acting quickly, the Houston Water team drove a semi with a low-boy trailer into the water and powered it as far as it could go. Then they lifted the man in his wheelchair onto the trailer and transported him to the maintenance shop, where they cared for him and helped him contact his family. Their selfless actions clearly saved a life.

WEF Heroes

Meanwhile, last September, WEF issued three Water Heroes Awards, reserved for those who perform beyond the usual call of duty during emergencies. The recipients were:

First Utility District, Knoxville, Tennessee. In February 2019, unprecedented rainfall put wastewater pump stations underwater; the depth reached about 20 feet aboveground level in some places. Every department in the district pitched in heavily, as the flood threatened customers and the system’s integrity. “Between Feb. 23 and May 17, crews worked more than 1,300 regular hours and more than 1,400 overtime hours to manage the situation,” according to a WEF news release.

Papillion Creek and Missouri River Water Resource Recovery Facilities, Omaha, Nebraska. In spring 2019, the state saw huge flooding from rapid snow melt, frozen ground and a bomb cyclone rainstorm. David Sykora, Michael Arends, Jim Theiler and staff took decisive action. On receiving the flood forecasts, they organized an around-the-clock, all-hands effort to lay barriers and sandbags, often wading through waist-deep water, to keep the Missouri River facility in operation.

At Papillion Creek, the process was similar, but flooding came from the confluence of the Missouri and Platte rivers. The staff worked to protect the facility until water started to come over the levees around the facility. After the flood, the staff “worked tirelessly to beat the time estimates to bring the facility back online and replace pumps, electrical lines, and other equipment.”

Waterborne Infectious Disease Outbreak Control subcommittee. This group of WEF members worked overtime to allow the federation to give water utilities and water professionals relevant, actionable information to protect essential workers and inform communities during the coronavirus pandemic.

The group created webcasts, podcasts and fact sheets and worked with WEF staff to validate website and publication content. Members were Akin Babatola, Robert Bastian, Kyle Bibby, Kari Brisolara, Elizabeth Conway, Lee Gary, Dr. Rasha Maal-Bared (chair), Lisa McFadden, Naoko Munakata, Lola Olabode, Robert Reimers, Albert Rubin, Samendra Sherchan, Scott Schaefer, Jay Swift, Charles Gerba, Mark Sobsey and Dr. Charles Haas.

It just goes to show that for many in the water professions, going above and beyond is all in a day’s work.   


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