One-Third of the US Sewer Infrastructure is at Risk during Hurricane Florence

Update: WatrHub is now Citylitics

Citylitics Marketing

Citylitics Marketing

By the morning on Thursday, September 13th, millions of people had fled or taken refuge in shelters. Flights were canceled, roads were shut down, and several states declared a state of emergency in preparation. Minute by minute, news agencies update colorful maps tracking the path of Hurricane Florence. For wastewater utilities in the area, it’s a multi-billion dollar waiting game to determine the extent of the damage on treatment facilities.

Breaking Down The Causes for Sewer Overflows from Hurrican Sandy. Courtesy of Climate Central.

What happens to sewer treatment plants during a natural disaster like a hurricane? Six years after Superstorm Sandy, the devastation on the water and wastewater industry is still fresh. New York and New Jersey struggled with power outages at plants, contaminants in drinking water, broken sewer lines and the inability to treat wastewater coming into plants, resulting in 11 billion gallons of sewage overflows. See how Climate Central broke down sewage overflows here.

All of this results in an enormous bill for sewer utilities. The New Jersey government recently estimated the cost in damages to water and wastewater industries from Superstorm Sandy to be $2.6 billion. Climate Central put the cost of repairing New York sewage treatment plants alone to be nearly $2 billion. And that’s just the recovery step. New York and New Jersey also received $569 million in grants from the EPA’s Storm Mitigation Loan Program for improvements to water and wastewater facilities to reduce the risk of damage from future natural disasters, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

These issues are not unique to New York and New Jersey. An American Water Works Association preliminary assessment estimated $2.25 billion dollars’ worth of damage to drinking water infrastructure after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. After Hurricane Maria struck, it took Puerto Rico almost 9 months to restore the water system to a fully operational level for 96% of customers, and residents’ water woes are far from over. And with the effects of climate change exacerbating the severity of these storms, we can expect similar challenges in the years to come.

All Eyes on Florence

The Carolinas were set to take the brunt of Hurricane Florence. On September 7th, North Carolina declared a state of emergency, followed by South Carolina on September 8th. Four days later, when the track shifted west and Georgia found itself in the path, the state declared a state of emergency as well. Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Washington DC were warned about flooding and excessive rainfall as a result of the storm. Officials monitored changes in the storm’s pattern and warned residents not to get complicit when the hurricane category dropped.

Analyzing Design Flow data from thousands of wastewater treatment plants from the largest states in Hurricane Florence’s projected path, WatrHub has mapped out the US sewer infrastructure at risk in the coming days. This covers a whopping 16,537 MGD of sewer flow or approximately 1/3 of the total US sewer infrastructure flow on any given day.

A Measure in MGD (Millions of Gallons Per Day) of sewer flow that is in the projected path states. A total of 16,537 MGD could be affected by Hurricane Florence. This total represents 1/3 of the total US sewer infrastructure design flow based on data analyzed for all wastewater treatment plants over 1 MGD. Map Courtesy of NOAA.

The water industry is evolving, and major storms are helping shape the future of water infrastructure. With programs like the Storm Mitigation Loan program, and with the increasing severity of hurricanes and other natural disasters, utilities have a responsibility to focus not only on repair, but on prevention. Sanitary sewer overflows for example, including the 11 billion gallons of raw sewage overflow after Superstorm Sandy, can threaten water quality, public health and cause damage to property. But how much can utilities do to minimize the volume of sewer overflows and reduce inflow and infiltration into the system? Greg Quist, President & CEO of SmartCover Systems, puts us in the mind of a sewer collection system operator in the wake of a storm.

“Hurricane Florence is going to hit us in three days. There’s not enough time to make pipeline repairs or do upsizing. Utilities can certainly deploy sandbags where they think overflows are bound to occur and direct the untreated sewage-laced waters to a more desirable place. That’s better than nothing, but they are still going to have massive spills.”

But there are measures operators can take to protect their systems. Greg and his team, for example, provide reassurance during these emergencies by minimizing sewer spills. “We show utilities where they have build-ups, grit accumulation, fats, oils, and grease (FOG), so they can tactically direct resources to where their system capacity is stressed, and in a couple of days, clean out those areas before the storm hits to maximize collection system capacity.” Smart Sewer Infrastructure like this, with the capability to handle disasters, will be more and more critical as storm severity increases.

Based on what we have learned from past storms, how should Wastewater Utilities be preparing for storms like Florence in the future?

3 Steps Utilities Can Take to Manage Effects of a Hurricane

1. Have an Emergency Plan in Place

Ensure operators are properly trained to handle any weather emergencies that could affect the area. Make a communication game plan and update emergency response contact lists to ensure emergency personnel has access to the plant. The EPA has a variety of guidance documents and other resources for utility preparedness, including a Scenario-Based Projected Changes Map and a Storm Surge Inundation Map.

2. Make the Right Preparations in the Days before the Storm

Standby generators should be available and maintained. A variety of operational issues, including sanitary sewer overflows, can happen as a result of power failures. There should be enough fuel to run emergency operations not only for the duration of the storm, but throughout the recovery period as well. Wastewater treatment plants are often in low elevation areas, and are especially susceptible to flooding. Getting equipment, vehicles, and materials in an area safe from flooding in the days leading up to a hurricane prevents unnecessary damage. The 48 hours before an extreme weather event can make or break the recovery process.

3. Have Vendors on Staff to Support Emergency Response Efforts

After a hurricane, affected water and wastewater treatment plants are faced with a long to-do list. Repairing, drying out, or replacing key damaged infrastructure, repairing and flushing distribution and sewer lines, and testing water for bacteria and chemicals to maintain compliance with EPA are all high priority projects that must be completed as quickly as possible. Prior relationships and plans that be trigged and deployed in a matter of days saves valuable time, resources and possible lives.

Thinking About The Future

Other long term infrastructure and operational prevention measures offer hope to utilities in Hurricane Alley and beyond. These include finding alternative/secondary water supplies from re-use, stormwater or desalination, decreasing dependency on a singular water source and protecting population centers in emergencies. Operators that are trained to respond to natural disasters further prepare utilities for the worst.

Persistence of natural disasters exacerbated by climate change will continue to threaten utilities across the country long after plants recover from Hurricane Florence. By preparing emergency protocol in the months before a storm, preparing equipment days before the storm, and being connected with the right people to make repairs, as well as keeping an eye out for solutions like the SmartCover Systems, utilities can set themselves up for the smoothest possible recovery after a hurricane.

WatrHub Inc, a Digital Intelligence Company, is pioneering datasets inspired by the needs of our clients, and we are eager to find new ways to shed light on the water industry. Talk to us about your company’s ideal water market dataset, or let us help determine what water infrastructure data would be most relevant to your needs. See what type of insights WatrHub can uncover at

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