ST. PETERSBURG— The sewer system has been significantly upgraded since last year's massive discharges, city officials said Wednesday, but Hurricane Irma is such a powerful storm that it could potentially render the $60 million spent on capacity and pipes moot.
"If we get a Category 4 or 5 storm that blows through, it isn't going to matter what we've done," Mayor Rick Kriseman said at a news conference held along the shores of Lake Maggiore. "Along with every other community in the west coast that gets hit by this thing, we're all going to have trouble.
"Obviously, our capacity to treat wastewater is a priority to me. And we will do everything within our power to ensure that sewage is properly treated. But, protecting people's lives and ensuring our community is safe during this storm is the priority for all of us."
Kriseman is running for reelection against former Mayor Rick Baker. Kriseman also announced Wednesday that he wouldn't campaign until after the storm passes. Baker campaign director Nick Hansen said they're monitoring the storm and won't hold any events through the weekend.
Irma is the first major challenge to St. Petersburg's sewers since Hurricane Hermine overwhelmed the already-ailing system last year. To prepare for Irma, the city said storage tanks in the city's three wastewater treatment plants have been emptied, two new injection wells have been readied to help dispose of treated sewage and 30 million gallons of storm-surge capacity has been added since last year with new filters and other equipment.
"This is the storm we've been preparing for," Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley said.
City workers have also been readying for the hurricane in other ways. Storm drains are being cleared out. And building inspectors have fanned out to construction projects around the city to make sure materials are tied down and won't become flying debris during the high winds expected to blow through the Sunshine City this weekend.
The minimal construction of the new pier, pilings in the water, aren't likely to be affected by hurricane winds or storm surge, Kriseman said.
What about Tropicana Field's domed baseball stadium? Is it sturdy enough to withstand a major hurricane?
"We're certainly hopeful that it is," the mayor said. "Hopefully, we don't find out."
But no amount of prep work can protect the city from flooding and other hazards, Kriseman said.
Gesturing behind him to Lake Maggiore, he noted that the banks of the flood-prone lake will likely overflow.
"It will be very hard to tell where the lake ends and the parking lot begins," he said.
So residents need to make emergency plans immediately, the mayor said, stock up on supplies and heed government evacuation orders.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn on Wednesday issued a local state of emergency in his city, but Kriseman said for now he was holding off on doing so in St. Petersburg for now. Thursday's City Council meeting was cancelled.
City officials will monitor the path of the storm from the Water Resources administration building, 1650 3rd Ave. N, which is the most secure city building, built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.
So far the city has distributed up to 70,000 sand bags, Tankersley said, and has the capacity to hand out another 70,000 if needed. The city doubled the number of sand bag sites to six and Kriseman urged residents to be kind to city employees working overtime to help them prepare for the storm.
"We know this is a stressful time for everyone in our city," the mayor said. "Please don't panic."