Sewage, Sewage Everywhere Print
Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
October 2017

After Irma, trouble bubbles up from below

APix_MarkSell_10-17s Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida, Laura and Mike Hill were locked, loaded, and ready.

Or so they thought. When Irma’s tide went out, the Hills, like others along the Biscayne Corridor and throughout Florida, found that their city’s infrastructure hadn’t held.

Six years ago the Hills, just transplanted from the Pacific Northwest, bought their 1951 house on the shady corner of Griffing Boulevard and NE 131st Street in North Miami, just across from the Biscayne Canal linking the Everglades with Biscayne Bay -- perfect for their kayak.

They left as little to chance as they could. Over the years they’d stocked up on sandbags, kerosene lamps, flashlights, batteries. Last year they installed a new roof with hurricane straps, and added galvanized shutters and a new storm door. Armed with dozens of gallons of water and a freezer full of ice, they blockaded the house with 50 sandbags from the shed before joining the in-laws on higher ground two blocks east.

They brought their kayak and life jackets, and hunkered down with their two young boys, their dog, and one cat (the other cat, Norma Jean, went AWOL). Before the winds truly picked up, the power flickered out, together with cell service, the Internet, and landlines.

Yet the real trouble was coming not from wind, rain, projectiles, or even a flood.

It was sewage -- raw, stinking sewage burbling from manholes, flooding the low-lying block, oozing nearly 18 inches above the ground.

Two miles to the east, the South Florida Water Management District had left the floodgates open near the ninth hole at the Miami Shores Country Club, and a three-foot storm surge pushed up the Biscayne Canal, forcing the water northward. A sewer lift station near NE 138th Street and NE 5th Avenue lost power and was apparently without a backup generator -- a perfect storm for the oozing mess.

“On Sunday morning, we walked the street,” says Laura Hill. “I’m president of NoMi Neighbors, so I know the people around here. People were out right away, cutting trees and clearing the streets. We were actually the first responders in our neighborhood. But we couldn’t get to our house. There was the smell of raw sewage. It was a fast river of shit for three and a half days.”

The city moved its operations into the police department, where it set up an emergency operations center, and police and city employees put in long shifts.

On Tuesday the water receded. The couple put on their boots and made their way back to the house. Norma Jean the cat returned.

“We walked in the house,” says Laura, “It was 85, 90 degrees. It smelled, and we saw the bathtubs and toilets backed up. The whole pool was full of sewage.

“I’m so glad we didn’t stay here. Imagine if we were barricaded in our house with two young boys and raw sewage flowing out of the bathtub.

“My mother in Seattle heard the story and she was disgusted,” Laura continues. “She went on Amazon and got us a pressure washer. The city came over and told us to shock chlorine the pool and let it go back into the canal. You know where the water goes -- the bay. The city wanted us to sign a waiver releasing the city from liability. None of the households I talked to wanted to sign that kind of waiver.”

Instead, they called their insurance company, which sent out a company, Williams Professional Water Restoration Service, which sucked the water out.

“They used generators,” she says, “There was no power. They cut out walls. They decontaminated the house before mold could grow. They saved our house.”

On Tuesday, September 19, the Hills got their power back. They returned home the next day. On Thursday, September 21, their sons, ages three and seven, were in the living room, playing games, with the house smelling of decontaminants and missing some furniture.

Outside, ruined chairs and cut trees were piled high. WastePro, Laura Hill said, hadn’t picked up bulk in the five days before the storm, so the neighbors had moved their trash inside. DRC Emergency Services was slow to send out crews to remove the tree debris. Full crews were scheduled to start Friday, September 22.

Underneath, the king tides had just begun, with puddles growing from manholes and sewer drains along NE 3rd, 5th, and 6th avenues. On the canal, waters were high and as impenetrable as dark tea. A water lift station was under construction across the street from the Hills.

Irma was a storm of superlatives: the biggest Atlantic storm on record, a Category 5 with 185-mph winds, cutting a swath of destruction through the Caribbean before pulverizing the lower Keys, striking Marco Island, and chugging northward as a diminishing Category 1. Nearly seven million people evacuated, the biggest in the nation’s history, and more than six million households and businesses lost power, some for ten days or more.

In Miami, as in much of the state, Irma was a messy tropical storm with 50- to 70-mph winds and gusts of 90-95 miles per hour. Not only was power out, but cell service and the Internet were spotty for two weeks. AT&T U-verse customers discovered that landline phones that had worked during Wilma in 2005 failed in 2017.

The fallback remains: portable generators and finite gasoline, the loss of which forced temporary closure of the Publix in Miami Shores a full week after the storm, and the Publix on NE 6th Avenue and NE 128th Street as recently as September 20.

“This wasn’t even a hurricane,” Laura Hill says. “We were absolutely unprepared.”

“I’m rethinking living in a FEMA flood zone,” she says. “I can’t trust when the city or any government tells me that the infrastructure is sufficient. We are ground zero for climate change. We’re a residential community, a waterfront community. We love the water and we taught our boys to fish. I’m not eager to go back in the water now. Infrastructure is a daunting task, and no one wants to fix it.”

Hill has helped form the Biscayne River Alliance, a group designed to unite people in the county, Opa-locka, Hialeah, Miami Gardens, North Miami, El Portal, Biscayne Park, and Miami Shores, all of which front the canal that empties into the bay.

On September 19, county commissioners heard an earful about the storm from many of the 120 speakers at an eight-hour meeting. Local governments, including North Miami’s, can expect much the same as the Irma inquest continues.

If this starts a rethink, a growing army of informed activist-citizens and governments will need each other as never before.

 

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