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After storms, rural water workers from other states help restore service. Following Hurricane Michael, many were awaiting word that they could access damaged areas.
Rural water utility operators in southeastern states were preparing late this week to provide aid and equipment to communities in Florida and Georgia that had been ravaged by Hurricane Michael.
"We're on standby,” Dennis Sternberg, CEO of the Arkansas Rural Water Association, said by phone Thursday afternoon. He explained that road closures and communications outages were forcing groups like his to hold off heading to communities the storm had battered.
“It's going to take a while to get to the affected utilities,” Sternberg added.
Hurricane Michael, one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever make landfall in the mainland U.S., delivered an especially devastating blow to the Florida Panhandle, with wind speeds around 150 mph. Gov. Rick Scott spoke of “unimaginable destruction.” Images of the aftermath showed swaths of homes and other buildings reduced to rubble.
Local officials from Apalachicola and the surrounding county said Thursday the water system in the city had a massive leak, sewers in the area were not working and power could take weeks or even a month to restore, according the Apalachicola Times.
Restoring water and sewer service is a key step in the recovery process. But generally, before many of the repairs occur, first responders search for disaster survivors and victims, while gas and electric utilities get gas leaks and downed power lines under control.
Pat Credeur, executive director of the Louisiana Rural Water Association, said some of his staff were planning to travel at least to Mobile, Alabama on Saturday morning, so that they will be closer to the disaster zone when they’re called in to provide assistance.
He said that he is preparing to deploy between five and 10 staff members, along with three generators, to Georgia or Florida and likened Hurricane Michael to highly destructive storms Louisiana has dealt with in the past, such as Rita and Katrina in 2005.
“We know how it feels to be in this situation and need more help,” he said.
Credeur noted that local utility workers are often reeling personally when a storm upends their community. “They're overwhelmed with the tragedy, the devastation,” he said. “Just to have another guy, from another state, even though it's a Cajun from Louisiana, with them, talking with them, helping them out, is a big plus.”
Rural water utility organizations regularly train and make other preparations so that their staff and equipment are ready to respond when storms and other disasters strike.
Gary Williams, with the Florida Rural Water Association, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment this week.
But Mike Keegan, who handles legislative affairs for the National Rural Water Association, said Williams has a reputation as someone who’s helped improve water utility emergency response and who often takes a hands-on role in recovery situations.
Repairing water systems after hurricanes can be difficult work that involves long days and hunting for valves, water meters and pipes in debris-strewn areas. For a water system to work properly and safely, broken equipment needs to be fixed so the system can hold pressure.
Houses ripped from their foundations can leave behind leaking water lines, while roots can break pipes when trees topple over.
Credeur said after Hurricane Rita, which hit southwest Louisiana, homes had been swept away and some meters and valves were buried under two or three feet of sand from the storm surge.
Kirby Mayfield, CEO of the Mississippi Rural Water Association, described how electrical equipment and pumps swamped by saltwater frequently need to be cleaned, fixed or replaced.
In recent months, Mayfield has traveled three times to Puerto Rico to help repair water systems damaged by Hurricane Maria. He said much of the work he’s done there has been on smaller water systems in mountainous areas, some of which had gone months without service.
His association has a 10-person staff and he says he’ll likely send three or four people to aid with the Hurricane Michael recovery.
“We're anticipating having to go,” Mayfield said. “And just waiting on the call.”
There’s also the possibility he could recruit additional volunteers from a statewide network in Mississippi known as the Rural Water Emergency Assistance Cooperative.
Generators are crucial for getting water systems working again. Mississippi had three moved to Florida prior to the storm and a fourth was en route on Friday, Mayfield said.
Sternberg noted that “If you don’t have emergency generators at your water supply plant, or well, then you can’t move any water.”
Both drinking water and wastewater need to be moved. If wastewater pumps aren’t working, but drinking water is flowing, sewer systems can be overwhelmed and overflow.
"Everything's going to be flowing in the streets,” Credeur said.
Sternberg said he’ll likely send four generators to the region affected by Hurricane Michael. He anticipates four crew members, plus himself will travel there. They’ll take two four wheel drive trucks, with a 24-foot trailer that’s been converted to provide a temporary living space.
His team will also take tools to detect leaks and find valves, shovels, and chainsaws.
“You’re kind of the MacGyvers down there,” Sternberg said. “You need a part, you can’t get it right away, you look to what’s left out there in the debris to try to make something work.”
Out-of-state water utility workers operating in a storm-damaged area typically pair with local staff who know the area. Whether the utility groups are reimbursed for aiding other states varies and depends on the flow of federal dollars, according to Mayfield and Credeur.
“We just know our neighbor needs help and we go help,” Mayfield said. “We don't worry about the money situation”
Credeur echoed that perspective. “Right now, we're just going on our own dimes and our own hearts,” he said.
Even though the rural water utility workers tend to focus on communities with 10,000 people or less, he said they’ll help out anyplace that has a need.
Credeur said the Rita and Katrina recovery efforts he was involved in over a decade ago lasted about four months, and that water utility workers from as far away as New York and West Virginia assisted.
He recalled how, after his crews were through working for the day, they would share meals and how he’d insist that they discuss some of the troubling situations they’d encountered.
“There's a lot of people standing in front of their homes, where their homes used to be, crying, holding babies, no place to live and my staff trying to console them,” he said.
“It takes a toll on you,” he added. “We shed a lot of tears.”
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.