Florida System’s Upgrades Put to the Test

After a full redesign, Marathon’s new system faces the ultimate test from Hurricane Irma
Florida System’s Upgrades Put to the Test
The Florida Keys received the worst of Hurricane Irma once it made landfall in the United States.

No matter how much you plan for the worst-case scenario, Mother Nature can still have its way.

The Florida Keys felt the brunt of Hurricane Irma this past weekend, as the storm brought torrential rains, storm surges and extreme winds to the island region. The geography and sensitive environments of the Keys already present challenges for local utilities, but hurricanes bring their own host of problems.

In the city of Marathon, which was featured in an October 2012 MSW profile, preparation for major storms began long before Irma popped up on the radar. The city’s wastewater system underwent significant upgrades from about 2005 to 2012, with storm resilience top of mind.

“If we have a major hurricane, you’re gonna have 3 to 4 feet of water across the whole island … that’s a given,” said Carlos Solis, public works and engineering director for Marathon, in the 2012 article. “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 down.”

The city’s revamped system has a series of treatment plants instead of one large, central plant, and utilizes pressurized mains to convey wastewater, which is beneficial in the event of a line break. Instead of expelling sewage, it will suck in air or water.

Those plants are designed to withstand 175 mph winds. Hurricane Irma peaked at 185 mph, but was closer to 130 mph when it made landfall in the Keys. All electrical equipment was built to stay above storm surge levels, which reached 15 feet in some areas over the weekend. The system as a whole is designed with excess capacity for tourist demand, which is assumed to be at least double the typical service base of 80,000.

Because of the geographical factors of the area, all potable water to Marathon and much of the Keys is supplied by the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority. A 36-inch pipe from the mainland supplies the area, and most cities have large backup tanks for when the main is down.

Marathon’s sewer system has been shut down completely, “to preserve the integrity of the entire system,” according to a press release.

In the latest updates from Monroe County, the Aqueduct Authority has been working to increase pressure in its system and is running water in limited bursts. Water restrictions are in place, with officials designating water use for “sanitation purposes only,” and a precautionary boil-water notice is in effect for the Keys. The biggest problem residents face in regaining water service is individual service line breaks.

Amid the flurry of recovery, inaccurate information surfaced, as Monroe County cited a report from the Department of Defense, which read, “Damage to the Keys may necessitate evacuation of the 10,000 persons who did not evacuate before the storm.” According to Monroe County officials, this is not the case.

Also, despite erroneous reports, Marathon itself is still cut off for evacuees, though emergency crews are hard at work to clear roads. According to a press release from Monroe County, the Department of Transportation dispatched five cut-and-toss crews and four bridge inspection teams on Monday. More were scheduled to fly into Key West on Tuesday, and aerial inspections were slated to begin as well.

County emergency service personnel evacuated the area together so that they could return as quickly as possible, in order to render aid and restore essential services.

Power is out for the vast majority of the area, with one of the larger service providers having restored 42 percent of its customers’ power.

MSW will have more coverage on how Irma affected utilities in the Florida Keys in the coming weeks.



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