Florida Rural Water Helps Rebuild Water and Wastewater Mains After Hurricane Destroys Infrastructure

PORT ST JOE, Fla. – Rows of broken, blue watermain pipe lay alongside the highway on Cape San Blas while crews dig trenches for new water and wastewater line. The storm surge from Hurricane Michael tore the water main for Lighthouse Utilities and the Port St. Joe wastewater collection system out of the ground, but assistance from the Florida Rural Water Association and neighboring utilities helped restore service to the cape.

“We were completely down,” said Matthew Pope, the Lighthouse Water System Operations Specialist. “The water tore out mains on the cape.”

Crews laying new water main.

The small Lighthouse Utilities serves a community of roughly 1,900 connections. The storm destroyed roughly hundreds of feet of water main, and the utility did not have the ability to replace it. Wastewater service on the cape is provided by Port St. Joe. Hundreds of feet of wastewater line and force main were exposed and pulled from the ground.

“There was over 3,500 feet of roadway, water and wastewater pipe damaged by the storm surge,” explained Scott Phillips, an FRWA wastewater training specialist.

Damage to roads and highways delayed relief until the Florida Department of Transportation could make temporary repairs. Once on-site, it was clear the water and wastewater infrastructure needed to be completely rebuilt.

“You could see hundreds of feet of pipe exposed,” Phillips said. “It was impossible to do anything else because there was no main.”

Highway repairs provided a further complication, because the DOT had yet to decide if the permanent highway repairs would go in to the same location or be rebuilt along a different path. Phillips recommended running a four-inch line across the surface to provide temporary water service until the route of the highway was determined and a permanent location of the water mains found. After meeting with the DOT and governor’s office, the state made a decision on the permanent location of the utilities.

Repairing water lines near newly-patched road.

“The governor requested the DOT survey the road,” Phillips said. “They decided to rebuild the highway along its current route.”

With the location decided, FRWA staff began organizing crews from neighboring utilities to start laying the new water and wastewater line. Boynton Beach, City of Cooper, Del Ray Beach, Escambia County Utility Authority, Port St. Joe, and Regional Utilities all contributes staff and equipment to help lay the new lines. FRWA helped supervise the effort and provided additional equipment like radios to coordinate traffic control.

The combined effort laid over 500 feet of water main, wastewater line and force main a day.

“We couldn’t have done it without Rural water,” Pope said. “We just don’t have the equipment.”

Once the main lines were replaced, FRWA began assisting the utilities restore service to the cape.

“When we got to where we could turn on some of the water, we started doing leak detection,” Phillips said.

FRWA staff also helped repair flooded control boxes on wastewater lift stations, helping bring the wastewater collections system back into operations.

Once Rural Water was able to access the area, the combined effort of FRWA and neighboring utilities was able to restore water and wastewater service to the majority of the cape in only a few days, despite having to replace the water and wastewater mains.