TAMPA, Fla. - The city of Tampa says it learned some big lessons after Hurricane Irma in 2017. For many, it was an uncomfortable few days without power, but city officials say, behind the scenes, they narrowly avoided a wastewater catastrophe.
"When Irma hit, we were really worried about [wastewater] overflowing and affecting the environment," said Calvin George, an advanced wastewater treatment technician for the city of Tampa.
As a result, the city's wastewater department began building a fleet of 64 new generators to act as a backup power source for the system in case another big storm were to hit.
Though Tampa itself was spared from severe flooding and wind damage, Irma dropped enough rain on the city to send wastewater treatment facilities into overdrive.
"During a storm like a hurricane, there are cracks or defects in our pipes that lets groundwater into our system and fills up the wastewater system," explained Tampa Wastewater Department director Eric Weiss. "An average day is about 55 to 60 million gallons [of wastewater], but because of cracks in the pipes, it ballooned up to 180 million gallons."
That kept technicians like George working around the clock to keep the system from failing and overflowing. The storm knocked out the power for more than 80 of the city's wastewater treatment plants, so technicians worked day and night rushing small portable generators to the facilities.
Had the wastewater plants overflowed, technicians say it could have spelled disaster.
"It would be devastating to the environment and the river. You'd see a lot of fish floating, a lot of algae blooms and things like that, which nobody wants in their backyard," said George. "You may see water coming up out of the manholes in the streets, which leaks into the ground. You drive over it, you walk on it. It would just be a complete domino effect."
That means bacteria-filled water mixed with sewage overflowing into the streets and local waterways. It also means tens of thousands of homes and businesses losing the ability to flush their toilets.
"We came very close and that was our eye-opener to say, hey, we have to start a new initiative to bolster our fleet of generators," said Weiss.
As a result, the city's wastewater department began building a fleet of 64 new generators, installing massive back-up power outside its seven central processing facilities and acquiring large mobile units that can readily move where they're needed most.
Officials say the new fleet of generators will be able to supply enough power to keep the city's water treatment facilities going for five days all on their own if needed.