Could Delray Beach have avoided its post-Irma sewage chaos?


Delray Beach is facing some criticism of its handling of sewage pump problems resulting from Hurricane Irma.

City workers had to scramble to keep water the underground sewage water from spilling into streets and homes after hurricane-force winds took out power at almost all the city’s sewage pumps.

As a result of powerless pumps, residents were asked to avoid draining water for about a week. That meant limiting flushing the toilet, running the shower or using the washing machine.

“If you’re already without light, you need water,” said Priscila Jackson, 47, who lives in the Delray Shores neighborhood. She rode out the storm with family, and heard about the sewage situation from a neighbor.

“I thought (the city) should be more prepared for these kinds of disasters,” Jackson said.

There are 129 pumps in Delray Beach, but the city had only 30 generators to power them. Realizing their deficiency of pumps, Delray tapped into emergency funds and bought 20 more during the storm, officials said.

Still, city workers had to manually rotate the generators between the 129 pumps to power them periodically. There was at least one sewage backup, but city and state officials said the waste water was cleared before it reached any homes in the gated Rainberry Bay community along Lake Ida Road.

“Sometimes you can’t prepare for every single thing that’s going to happen,” Commissioner Shelly Petrolia said at a meeting Tuesday.

But could Delray Beach officials have acted differently?

The city manager’s office and utilities department did not respond to inquiries about how the sewage situation was handled.

City workers had to manually monitor the lift stations, or the facilities designed to move sewage from lower to higher elevations to keep it from overflowing, for 96 hours, said Commissioner Mitch Katz.

“They acted heroically,” Katz said.

The city bought its first 30 generators a decade ago. They were kept in storage until after Hurricane Irma because “there was no way of knowing where we would lose power,” Katz said.

In neighboring Boca Raton, however, the city anticipated outages and placed its generators at priority pumps before the storm, said city spokeswoman Chrissy Gibson.

“We learned valuable lessons from (Hurricane) Wilma,” the 2005 storm whose Category 2-force winds took out power in much of Palm Beach County in some cases for weeks, Gibson said.

Boca Raton had no reported sewage backups from pump failures, even though 80 percent of their pumps were without power for days, Gibson said. One water main did break during the storm spilling waste water into the streets, but it was from storm damage, not pump failures.

“We had generators ready to go and kick in as soon as we lost power,” she said. “Generally speaking, we had no issues with sewage or lift stations because we were prepared.”

The village of Wellington also deployed generators to lift stations preemptively so when the power went out, the pumps kept working, village officials said. Except at the peak of the storm, Wellington Public Works staff stood in raincoats next to lift stations to make sure there were no failures.

The town of Palm Beach had enough generators to power all lift stations, said Chassler Holm, who heads the public works department. One of the town’s pumps overflowed during the storm, he added, but no other issues followed Irma.

“Compared to other municipalities, we handled the situation well,” Holm said.

Delray’s Acting City Manager Neal De Jesus commented on the sewage situation during a meeting Tuesday night, lauding city workers for acting swiftly to make sure sewage didn’t overflow into homes.

“We’re much better suited now moving into the next storm,” De Jesus said.



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