Irma runoff threatening wastewater systems in SW Florida

By Ed Adamczyk and Danielle Haynes  |  Updated Sept. 14, 2017 at 2:43 PM
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Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Utility officials in southwest Florida urged residents to conserve water Thursday as wastewater systems became overwhelmed in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

Lee County Utilities and Collier County Public Utilities said residents there shouldn't use any unnecessary water, including running dishwashers and clothes washers -- anything that puts extra water into the sewer system. Officials also urged people to limit the amount of toilet flushing and water used in baths and showers.

Collier County Public Utilities said the wastewater systems there were so inundated with runoff from Irma flooding that if usage was not reduced enough, they may have to temporarily shut off the water supply to the county.

These two counties were among the hardest hit by Hurricane Irma on Sunday, both experiencing flooding, particularly in Bonita Springs, and wind damage, like in Naples.

President Donald Trump visited the the damaged region Thursday afternoon, taking a tour of a trailer park where homes were twisted and flattened.

In Bonita Springs, a vacation hamlet that sits at sea level, water levels were waist-high Wednesday and rising.

"The flooding was all over town," said Martha Simmons, a former councilwoman. "But the low-lying homes east of [Interstate] 75 were hit hardest."

On Thursday, residents who had evacuated were relieved to learn that rising waters in the Santa Fe River did not, in fact, inundate I-75 as Florida transportation officials predicted it would. The Florida Department of Transportation had warned people that flooding in Jacksonville, in the northeast, might overwhelm the interstate and shut down a 36-mile stretch.

Emergency management officials said Thursday morning, though, that "it looks like we're [in the] clear" because the river had stabilized overnight.

Meanwhile, farther south in the Florida Keys, the National Guard set up five command posts in shelters to assist with victims. Residents are still only allowed to return to the upper Keys, where there is water, power, fuel and a functioning hospital. Beyond mile marker 73, though, resources are scarce.

The National Guard was expected to remain in the area for up to 30 days.

While going door-to-door in the lower keys, search and rescue teams found the bodies of eight people who remained on the islands through the storm. At least 31 people in three states were reported dead from the effects of Hurricane Irma, state agencies said Thursday.

Florida officials have reported at least 24 deaths, including eight who died Wednesday after an air conditioner at a Hollywood nursing home failed.

Search and rescue teams, aided by military personnel, are traveling house-to-house in the islands to provide any relief needed by residents who didn't evacuate. Irma was a Category 4 hurricane when it struck the area on Sunday, and FEMA reported that about 25 percent of buildings in the 110-mile island chain were destroyed.

Four people also died in South Carolina and three in Georgia when the storm made its way north.

While South Florida deals with recovery efforts, Jacksonville in northeast Florida lost 200 utility poles and 300 transformers in record flooding. The city's downtown area was among several areas that saw significant floods.

JEA, the city's electricity provider, said 280,000 customers lost power in the storm and 108,000 still had no electricity on Thursday. The utility added that it could take another week to restore all power.

The U.S. Energy Department on Thursday said power had been restored to 75 percent of Florida and that there were still more than 200,000 outages in Georgia. The U.S. Virgin Islands was "mostly without power."

Florida Power & Light said residents on the east coast of the state should expect to have power back by Sunday, while those on the west coast should have power by Sept. 22. Residences and businesses that sustained "extreme or catastrophic damage," though, would have to be rebuilt before power could safely be turned don.

The U.S. Attorneys Office in Florida announced a Disaster Fraud Task Force and urged all Florida residents and businesses to immediately report suspected fraudulent activity relating to recovery and cleanup operations. The U.S. Department of Labor announced it will dedicate up to $40 million in Disaster Dislocated Worker Grant funding to Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to assist in disaster response efforts.

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