The hurricane, the first to hit the state in 11 years, dumped an unprecedented 14 inches of rain in Gulfport at its height Wednesday and Thursday, August 31 and September 1, respectively, and more in the following days. Streets flooded, businesses were forced to close, and residents set out almost 6,000 sandbags to protect their properties.
Gulfport’s municipal government sent all non-essential employees home before noon on September 1, but kept phone lines open throughout the emergency fielding some 300 calls from residents.
And despite the crisis, GeckoFest, one of Gulfport’s biggest street fairs of the year, went off with only minor hitches Saturday, with tens of thousands of visitors flooding the community for a full day of entertainment.
During the storm, however, heavy rain combined with ground water infiltration and tides two feet above normal overwhelmed aging sewage infrastructure in Gulfport and the rest of Pinellas County. At the height of the bad weather, Gulfport was sending 15,000 gallons per minute to the overtaxed sewage system in St. Petersburg, which could not handle the load.
Manholes overflowed and employees with pumps sought to relieve the pressure, sending watered-down untreated sewage directly into Boca Ciega Bay, Gulfport officials said.
Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly said that as of 1 p.m. Tuesday, September 6, effluent had been discharging into the bay “for the last five and a half days.”
O’Reilly explained that either the waste backed up into residents’ houses or it went into the bay. “It’s either or,” he said. “There’s no simple answer.”
City Councilmember Christine Brown, whose Ward 2 includes a large swath of the city’s waterfront, said diverting sewage into the bay was not a “popular” choice, “but it is the only way to protect the health and safety of humans. … Every community affected by Hermine had to do the same thing we were forced to do.”
Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson agreed.
“We opted for the path with the least direct negative impacts to residents and their property,” he said. “No one likes it, but it was the choice we had to make.”
While some people complained about sewage running into the bay on the city of Gulfport’s official Facebook page, others were more understanding.
“Difficult choices,” read one comment posted by Anne White on September 2. “It’s impressive how well the city communicates during situations like this storm. It’s appreciated.”
Kirt M. Kleiner thanked public works and police employees for being on the streets during the storm, posting “Thanks for helping us get through emergency safely!”
Henderson said Tuesday that Gulfport reported 282,000 gallons of wastewater overflow to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as required.
That was fraction of the 29 million gallons of sewage the Tampa Bay Times reported Tuesday had been dumped into area waterways by Pinellas County and municipalities including Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
Coliform bacteria levels at Gulfport’s municipal beach fell within health parameters during testing Monday, but officials decided to close the beach Tuesday anyway as a precaution, O’Reilly said. The same was not the case at the Gulfport Marina and Clam Bayou, where coliform levels exceeded safe limits.
Gulfport is taking action to minimize sewage overflows in the future, city officials said, with plans to spend around $5 million on sewage infrastructure upgrades over a 5-year period that started last year. To date $1.5 million has been spent, O’Reilly said. Faster efforts are hindered by lack of manpower and money, he said.
“Nothing in the city, from a budget standpoint, has been given greater priority,” Henderson said. “Our aging infrastructure problems have been handed down to us for decades, and this generation is tasked with fixing it.”
“There is no quick fix,” Brown agreed. “If our system was completely renovated, 14 inches of rain would likely still be too much to handle.”
Hermine gave the city a chance to test its emergency preparedness and several city officials said they were please with the results.
O’Reilly called municipal employees’ response “excellent.”
“They were out there in it doing everything they were asked,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough.”
Brown, who is also a member of Gulfport’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), said she was “very pleased with our city staff and how well they took care of our city during this emergency. … We have a lot to be proud of.”
However, she said some members of the community were not as responsible as they should have been in the storm.
Although Williams Pier had to be blocked off because of storm damage, some people jumped over the barricades with their children and one family’s children were jumping on and off the floating dock behind the Casino with the high waves, she said.
“The police were forced to put themselves in harm’s way to go out there and stop them,” she said.
Henderson said city crews “worked some long and intense hours keeping debris off the roads and monitoring sewers, storm water drainage and flooding.
“We provided just shy of 6000 sandbags to residents as well. People forget that this is a small town with limited resources. I feel like our people did an excellent job …”
However, he said that response from the community indicated that emergency information was not as easy to find on the city’s website as it could have been.
“Everything needed was present and available, but that information should be front and center during emergency conditions and so easy to access that your great grandma could find it in under a minute,” he said.
City officials are still evaluating the costs of the storm in damage to personal property and extra expenses to the city from increased staffing, equipment, infrastructure damage, etc., Henderson said.
“At this time we cannot provide what those numbers might be, but will share an estimate when we’ve tabulated the damage,” he said.