By Jane Smith
If you aren’t drinking the water, don’t use it.
Delray Beach utilities officials sent that command via email, social media and its CodeRed app about 10:20 p.m. on Sept. 10. Banned uses included bathing, toilet flushing and dish washing.
Hurricane Irma’s winds were still lashing Delray Beach, toppling trees that brought down 140 power lines. The city lost power at 70 percent of its 129 sewage pumping stations. It had portable generators for only 30 stations.
Most of Delray’s water customers also lost power. Less than half of its residents had signed on for alerts from CodeRed, an emergency application that works on smartphones.
As a result, the sewage flows remained the same, said Neal deJesus, interim city manager. He spoke at a special City Commission meeting Sept. 13 to update commissioners on Irma’s damage.
He called the lift station problem “the Achilles’ heel” of the storm.
“Staff did an incredible job moving the generators from station to station,” deJesus said. “Even though the public was asked to please conserve, that didn’t work. Each pump station is at near normal use for this time of year.”
He approved an emergency purchase of 20 generators for $2.2 million. “When the power comes up, no one wants to give up their generators,” deJesus said.
Commissioners said the city needs a better way of communicating with its residents and business owners during emergency situations. They’ll devote part of the regularly scheduled Oct. 10 workshop to that discussion.
That might be a notice in water bills asking customers to sign up for CodeRed alerts, Commissioner Shelly Petrolia said at the Sept. 13 meeting. She and fellow commissioners thanked the staff for working so hard to avoid a public health emergency.
At the meeting, Petrolia asked why the problem had not happened in the past.
“We had major power outages with this storm,” deJesus said. “The downed power lines were not just between the poles, but between the transformers.”
By the special meeting on the Wednesday of the week after Irma, city officials had changed their message from a command to a request for water conservation.
Although notifying water customers was not required, it was called “prudent to alert water users of a potential problem,” said Tim O’Connor, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County.
In Boca and Boynton
The cities of Boynton Beach and Boca Raton also lost power at their sewage pumping stations, a typical situation during tropical storms and hurricanes.
“Prior to the storm we asked residents to conserve water by limiting use and flushing and to turn off irrigation systems,” said Chrissy Gibson, Boca Raton spokeswoman.
The city has approximately 300 lift stations and lost power to 80 percent of them during the storm, Gibson said.
Boca Raton staff worked around the clock to move the various generators and rotate them, she said. “We had enough to keep the system running, even with 80 percent out of power,” she said.
In Boynton Beach, the city lost power to about 70 percent of its sewage pumping stations, said Colin Groff, assistant city manager and former utilities director.
But unlike Delray Beach, Boynton Beach didn’t ask its water customers to restrict water consumption. The city uses a combination of fixed, portable and diesel generators as backup power, Groff said.
During Irma, the city had two or three spills of between 10 to 15 gallons of sewage each, Groff said, when Irma’s winds were high and it was not safe for workers to be outside. The city reported them to the state Department of Environmental Protection, but they did not appear in the database. “It might not have met their threshold,” he said.
Under rules that went into effect in July, utility operators are required to report sewage spills less than 1,000 gallons to the DEP or health department within 24 hours, according to Jill Margolius, local DEP spokeswoman.
Spills over 1,000 gallons, which may threaten the environment or public health, must be reported immediately to a 24-hour hotline.
As of Sept. 14, 22 of Florida’s 67 counties reported sewage spills, a combined total of 28 million gallons of treated and raw sewage, according to the DEP database. The amount is likely higher because some reports did not contain amounts.
The same day, Delray Beach reported less than 1,000 gallons of sewage had bubbled up from a storm drain in the Rainberry Bay community near Congress Avenue and Lake Ida Road, according to the DEP database.
All Delray Beach water users were supposed to follow the restrictions, deJesus said.
Caffe Luna Rosa reopened its oceanside restaurant Sept. 11, the same day Irma winds diminished in Delray Beach.
For the next three days, the eatery served a limited menu, used generators to power the coolers, didn’t serve water, cooked on a gas stove and used disposable plates and cups, said Fran Marincola, co-owner of the restaurant.
Mixed drinks do not need water, he said.
The following day, Sept. 12, more restaurants opened in Delray Beach, including Subculture Coffee Roasters.
“We didn’t know about the water use restrictions,” said Jenniffer Woo, food manager. “We were never contacted.”
“We are all about conserving water so we would have been happy to comply,” she said.