Utilities Track Path of Hurricane Irma

Florida’s water and wastewater utilities prepare in case they end up in the path of the record-breaking storm
Utilities Track Path of Hurricane Irma
Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico on Wednesday. —Photo by Alvin Baez/Reuters

Florida residents are closely following the path of Hurricane Irma, seeing where the massive storm currently wreaking havoc in the Caribbean might make landfall in the United States. By Wednesday afternoon, Irma had sustained wind speeds of 185 mph for over 24 hours, the longest period ever recorded.

Despite the strength of the storm, Florida water and wastewater utilities are prepared if they end up in Irma’s path. The city of Marathon is the midpoint of the Florida Keys, some 75 miles from the mainland. Its treatment plants are designed to survive the type of winds Irma is producing, and all electrical equipment is located above the levels expected for a storm surge, which is required by Florida building code.

“If we have a major hurricane, you’re going to have 3 to 4 feet of water across the whole island … that’s a given,” says Carlos Solis, public works director. “Obviously, we won’t be operating until the water recedes. But as soon as it does, we can get back online using generators, even if the grid is still down.”

The Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department is the largest water and wastewater utility in the southeastern U.S., serving 2.3 million people, plus thousands of daily visitors, and covering 400 square miles. Jennifer Messemer-Skold, public relations officer for the utility, says Miami-Dade’s 12 water and wastewater treatment plants all have enough treatment supplies, gas and generators to operate for weeks after the storm, if necessary.

“The last real test was in 2005 when South Florida was impacted by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Residents did not lose any service at that time,” says Messemer-Skold.

If Irma does produce a devastating strike, utilities can also count on FlaWARN, which offers a way for all state water and wastewater utilities to provide each other with quick relief in the days following a major weather or catastrophic event. Help comes in the form of manpower, equipment and supplies to restore service as safely and quickly as possible.

FlaWARN is not a corporation, partnership or governmental entity. Through voluntary mutual aid agreements, members agree to provide assistance and protection to water supplies as a first priority, but do not agree to fill in for routine utility functions such as sending out boil-water notices or restoring loss of service to individual customers. 

“During emergencies people want to help people, but government doesn’t want people to go out on their own so we provide them with an organized network,” says Carol Hinton, FlaWARN’s program administrator and director of the University of Florida’s Center for Training, Research and Education for Environmental Occupations (UF TREEO). 

She emphasizes that the first order of business is to protect public health and the environment by repairing main breaks, containing hazardous materials, and minimizing wastewater spills that could contaminate water supplies.

“We can live without electricity,” she says, “but we want to flush those toilets to prevent disease.” 

A key element to the success of the FlaWARN system is excellent communication among utilities and local and state agencies that support emergency operations. On the FlaWARN website, administration gets updates from StormTracker, the event tracking system developed by Kenyon Carter, an engineer with the state Department of Environmental Protection Division of Water Resource Management. 

“StormTracker evolved from a paper format to an electronic application over a period of years,” Carter says. “Today it is a mature Internet-based system for collecting and disseminating emergency response and recovery information.”

Wall-mounted monitors at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee track logistics by showing the “operational status of impacted water facilities as utilities progress through the recovery process.” 

But Hinton doesn’t rely solely on technology to keep in touch. She and Gary Williams, executive director of the Florida Rural Water Association, work together to help utilities keep lines of communication open with each other. Before, during, and after a hurricane, Hinton or Williams answer a call in the middle of the night on a personal cellphone or orchestrate conference calls among 50 utilities or more from the Emerald Coast panhandle to the Florida Keys. 

The main reason utilities have volunteered resources without up-front assurances of compensation is that in the first few days after an event, state and federal funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is not yet available or the bureaucratic process is too slow. They simply cannot afford to wait. 

“Sometimes there’s not time to ask for permission,” Williams says. “It slows things down. Our mission is to restore water and wastewater. If it’s not in compliance with bureaucratic policies, we ask for forgiveness.” 


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