The following update is being provided as of 1:54 PM Sunday, September 10, 2017 to help provide an understanding of what decisions are being made for the health and safety of those in the community served by the Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water and Sewer Commission.
Many have indirectly communicated that they don’t understand the decisions made in setting the service emergency response plans up. First, let me revisit the events that occurred during Hurricane Mathew. The original planning last year included the shutdown of water and sewer assets to protect the equipment and water assets in the best manner possible by de-energizing electrical systems and shutting off full tanks off from the lines that feed them. This was not an original plan but rather an approach one which has been developed by other utilities in the past and is still in use by a number of utilities including the JEA, our neighbor to the south of us that serves the Jacksonville, Florida area.
This plan was discussed with the community partners with the Emergency Operations Center executive team prior to Hurricane Matthew. At that time, it was deemed to be not doable due to various agency and community entities who were not able to make the needed adjustments in time for the hurricane situation which had arisen. Based on a community concurrence to provide financial support for any damages which resulted, the BGJWSC left all water and sewer equipment and assets on line and running during the storm.
This resulted in several issues which created greater problems after the fact. Among those problems was various electrical controls and pump motors being damaged by lightning strikes. Due to the sewage pump stations being left to start up when power returned, some pump stations started pumping sewage before the downstream pump stations had regained power or had been repaired after the lightning strike damages. This in turn, caused sewage to be pumped into full lines which then backed up into homes and spilled out into the environment and streets creating human health threats in those locations.
Georgia Power worked frantically throughout the service area to return power to all pump stations. BGJWSC staff also worked frantically to repair storm damaged assets. Collectively, all assets were repaired and returned to service within three days. Had the systems been systematically shutdown and power removed prior to the storm, better than 90 percent of damages incurred to these assets could have been avoided and delays due to BGJWSC asset damages could have been eliminated. Sewage spills and back-ups could have been avoided completely and people could have returned to their homes sooner without the threat of exposure to pathogens associated with raw sewage.
Luckily, no major water lines broke. However, minor water lines did break as a result of trees being blown over and roots pulling up water lines. This caused the system to lose pressure, which in turn resulted in the need to release a boil water alert. This notice is required by law any time the distribution system pressure drops below 20 psi. This loss of water pressure delayed authorities being able to make the decision to allow people back onto St. Simons Island since there was no potable water service to provide for basic health and safety needs. Luckily, the mainland had more limited damage and did not experience these issues.
Hurricane Irma Plan
For Hurricane Irma, BGJWSC staff remembered the lessons learned from the events of Hurricane Matthew. Again, staff decided in the initial planning to de-energize all water and sewer assets. This would involve filling and isolating water tanks and driving to every sewage pumping station to physically turn off the breaker. Certain critical mainland entities and mainland storm staging facilities in the community were unable to make the necessary adjustments to deal with having these services turned off during the storm. BGJWSC staff analyzed ways to accommodate those needs and try to minimize the potential to see repeats of the events experienced during Hurricane Mathew.
The solution was to keep water pumps running on the mainland to serve those which were critical partners in the community’s response to the storm while filling water towers, isolating all but two of those towers which would be left in service to serve as a system pressure release tool in case the lines overfilled due to minimal number of users. We would also aim to shutdown sewage pump stations on the mainland. In theory, with few users remaining behind for a mandatory evacuation, the existing lines can hold the waste generated by those people without having to pump sewage until after the storm.
Since there are no critical community elements located on St. Simons Island to respond or commence recovery actions during or after the storm, all water and sewer assets are to be shut down – again to avoid the problems and delays experienced during Hurricane Mathew. These changes seemed to meet the needs for emergency services during the storm. The 2:00 PM target to commence shutting down service on St. Simons Island was driven by the time sustained tropical storm force winds and potential overwhelming storm surge are expected to hit our area. This gives BGJWSC personnel time to get the process of shutting down those assets as well as time to return to safe staging areas immediately before the worst weather occurs.
Monitoring Conditions & Adjusting Plan
Staff in the Emergency Operations Center are monitoring the weather and, should conditions change sufficient to insure power loss is minimal and that little damage is sustained from the storm, the plan could be adjusted. At this time, critical power outages are still projected. The plan at this time is to continue the steps outlined. The staff of BGJWSC will continue to monitor and adjust the plan where possible.
Startup After Shutdown
Following the storm and once the wind subsides to less than 40 Miles per hour, staff will immediately commence the start-up of all assets in a systematic way to insure no additional damages are incurred to water assets and no spills are created by our actions. This should allow for the quickest and safest return to St. Simons Island for all needing to get on the island.
At this time, the emergency operations center is prepared for a 2:00 pm briefing with the National Weather Service. Following that briefing, the management team will make the final assessment of the decisions that must be made to most effectively respond to the weather event.