MEXICO BEACH, Fla. – When Phillip Hall drove into the Mexico Beach water plant and saw the water tower laying on the ground storage tank, he knew the city’s water system was significantly damaged.
“When I pulled into the yard and saw that tower down, I just knew,” said Hall, the Mexico Beach public works director. “The whole system was entirely inoperable.”
Mexico Beach was completely without power. Hurricane Michael leveled swaths of the city, and it’s estimated that 70% of the city’s structures will have to be demolished. Water main breaks made it impossible to restore service to some sections of the city. Several of the wastewater lift stations were damaged.
“Mexico Beach was essentially ground zero for the hurricane’s impact,” said Gary Williams, executive director of the Florida Rural Water Association. “There is Katrina-type devastation in places along the coast.”
Entire streets were washed away, complicating the relief efforts until crews could fill and patch the damaged roads. Even weeks after landfall, rural water still had to contend with rough, temporary fills and patches on Highway 98 with some side streets washed out and impassable.
“It took us a while to get in here because the roads were so damaged,” Williams said.
Assistance from Rural Water started to restore service to the devastated city.
“We’ve had some amazing people come help us,” Hall said.
From the beginning, Rural Water was committed to a long-term relief effort.
“When I got here, I told them ‘Rural Water is all-in, and we’ll stay here until you don’t need us any more,’” Williams said.
Emergency generators from the Alabama Rural Water Association, Georgia Rural Water Association, Louisiana Rural Water Association and Florida Rural Water Association helped provide power to the treatment plants, master meters and lift stations. Some of the generators have operated continuously for over 10 days supplying power.
“We’ve had to service a lot of this equipment in the field,” Williams said. “Some of these generators have run for two weeks – they need things like oil and filters, and of course fuel.”
Once supplied with emergency power, rural water crews began assisting the city with the work of restoring water and wastewater services. The work effort included crews from the Rural Water Associations and over 300 utility workers from utilities across Florida.
“They shut off meters, repaired water lines and fixed lift station panels,” Hall said.
It was a massive effort that mobilized dozens of work crews to repair and replace significant damage.
“This has been a lot more than the typical response, which is generators and pumps,” Williams said. “This has been completely rebuilding the water and wastewater infrastructure, including laying new water and wastewater lines.”
It was a relief effort the city did not have the spare material or cash reserves to support. FRWA and the State Revolving Loan Fund committed to purchasing $120,000 of parts and material to help rebuild the system.
“When the work crews show up, they have to have something work with,” Williams said. “It’s a credit to the Florida Rural Water board of directors and membership, because without them we’d have nothing to bring to the table.”
Roughly 18 days since the hurricane made landfall, 60% of the city has its water restored and 75% of the lift stations are back online. The water plant is running on automated mode and the chlorination system is at 100%. It’s a significant achievement that would not be possible without Rural Water.
“What Rural Water is doing is invaluable to these communities,” Hall said. “We have 20 employees in public works. We could have gotten everything back eventually, but it would have taken months.”
The recovery was especially complicated because city workers were dealing with personal losses as well as city damage. Hall himself would take off work the next day to meet with insurance adjusters.
“All their employees came back after the storm, which shows a great dedication and commitment to the customers of Mexico Beach,” Williams said.
Rural Water’s effort has earned the praise of the Mexico Beach community.
“I cannot put into words how helpful Rural Water had been,” he said. “I’ve told all of them ‘helpful is just not kind enough.’”
For Williams, it is another example of the community of rural water systems and the power of systems aiding other systems.
“The Rural Water family pulled together, like they always do, to alleviate the suffering of the public,” he said.