Sewage spills explained: This is what happens during a storm like Sally

Okaloosa County

OKALOOSA COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB)— Hurricanes cause more than just flooding, wind damage, and power outages — they can also cause massive amounts of raw sewage to leak into open bodies of water.

With over 117 local sewage spills reported after Hurricane Sally, the Department of Environmental Protection said 58 of those were in Okaloosa County alone.

Mark Wise, the Deputy Director of Okaloosa County Water and Sewer said the city works overtime and does everything they can to stop and prevent the leaks from happening but conditions from a storm like Sally are a game-changer.

“There was 22-inches of rain and prolonged power outages that a sewer system is not capable of handling prolonged power outage at the same time off 22-inches of rain in a 24-hour period,” Wise said.

Wise said for the sewage system to work properly, the lift stations need to be operational. In usual power outages, the generators kick in and take over.

“There was so much rain that the system was overwhelmed,” Wise said. “We were basically trying to pump down a flood in a lot of places and a sanitary sewer system is not designed to pump a flood down essentially.”

Wise said that the power outage or the rain alone would have been manageable.

“We could have handled it,” Wise said. “But with both combined, that’s simply what happened.”

The job of the lift station is to keep sewage away from places that might cause contamination. It goes from one lift-station to the next.

“So eventually it goes to a wastewater plant,” Wise said. “We’ve got 2.8 billion gallons annually that go through like three treatment plants.”

Wise said in Fort Walton, that adds up to 500 miles of piping, 4,000 manholes, and 33,000 customers. He said when acts of God, like Sally, occur, sewer spills are just inevitable.

He said they certainly aren’t from a lack of hard work on the County’s end.

“About four days after Hurricane Sally hit, our staff had been working around the clock,” Wise said.

Wise said the Clifford Lift Station in Fort Walton had major problems due to Sally. The 24-inch diameter line coming into the station completely failed.

“As the floodwater was going down, the top of the pipe collapsed,” Wise said. “After the storm, they worked through the entire day and the entire night and got it repaired.”

Wise said reporting spills isn’t an easy task and is usually met with a lot of criticism, but he believes that honesty is always the best policy.

“We pride ourselves in being honest and straight forward and transparent whenever we have spills,” Wise said.

Part of their transparency requires they report the spills to the DEP and the public. Wise said out of the three spills that occurred from the Clifford Lift Station, the bodies of water that were affected are now back to normal levels.

“The solution to pollution is dilution,” Wise said.

Wise is very proud of his staff in Okaloosa County who worked for hours on end to make sure the spills were contained sooner than later.

“They get in the sewer, they work hard, and they’re mechanically inclined and they do this every day to prevent spills,” Wise said. “They are unsung heroes.”

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