Tampa and St. Petersburg prepared Tuesday for street flooding and the kind of heavy rain that at times has overwhelmed their wastewater systems, befouling Tampa Bay and the Hillsborough River with sewage discharges.
"The city is prepared for this event," St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said on the steps of City Hall, referring to the approach of a tropical storm system. "Our storm drains have been cleared. Our sewer system has been drained to maximize capacity during the storm. And our team has been mobilized and will work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to minimize the storm's impact."
Since Tropical Storm Colin in June, when 10 million gallons of city sewage ended up being dumped or spilled, St. Petersburg has spent $400,000 to add 3 million gallons of emergency storage capacity at its old Albert Whitted Wastewater Treatment Plant. The job was expected to take four months, but was done in two. As a result, the plant can hold a surge while the city continues to treat sewage flowing into its system.
"That extra capacity is now ready for this event," said Claude Tankersley, St. Petersburg's public works administrator. City crews also have cleared out grills and storm drains.
"We as a city are going to do everything within our power to keep our residents and their homes free from sewage," Kriseman said. "To us, that is the priority."
St. Petersburg residents can help by doing things that use lots of water — like washing laundry or running the dishwasher — before or after the storm.
"The less you're using your water during the storm, the less comes into our system," Kriseman said.
In Tampa, officials say stormwater will always pose some problems. Still, they like their chances with this storm better than they did three months ago, when Colin caused about 352,000 gallons of raw sewage to spill into the Hillsborough River north of the Columbus Drive bridge.
The reason: Since then, the city has finished and opened a new $7.3 million pumping station near the Tampa Convention Center. That station has 30 percent more capacity than the one it replaced. The city also has put in a new diversion pipeline in South Tampa that has seen overflows in the past.
"I think we are far better prepared today than we were a year ago," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.
Moreover, the city's Howard F. Curren Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant "has a lot of capacity ready for the storm," said Brad Baird, Tampa's top utilities official. It was designed to handle up to 96 million gallons of wastewater a day and currently averages about 60 million gallons a day. But Baird said it could handle up to 200 million gallons in a day.
"As long as we stay under that mark, we will not have an overflow," he said. "We will have full treatment of that water before it goes into the bay."
The city also has checked pumping stations to make sure they're ready, and cleaned out some inlets and pipes. And it has spent the past year cleaning out ditches, retention ponds and outfalls more often, thanks to an increase in the annual fee that property owners pay to maintain the stormwater system.
If Tampa gets, as some forecasts predict, 5 or more inches of rain, "we will have flooding and standing water in the usual places where we normally have it," Buckhorn said.
To prepare, Tampa also has positioned barricades at 20 low-lying trouble spots around town. As soon as those areas start to flood, police will put the barricades in place. Police have four Humvees that were acquired from the military stationed around town in case they have to drive through high water.
But Tampa police Chief Eric Ward said no one else should try it — it endangers both the drivers and those who have to rescue them — and no one should try to drive around a barricade. (Across the bay, St. Petersburg officials noted that as little as 12 inches of water can float a car.)
"We can't stress this enough," Buckhorn said. "Do not drive through standing water. … If we can avoid that, we can avoid 90 percent of the problems."
In Pasco County, officials had not ordered an evacuation, but Emergency Services director Kevin Guthrie encouraged those in low-lying areas to consider leaving on their own.
"Maybe it'd be a good time to spend a long weekend" with family, he said.
The county's rivers were well below flood stage, Guthrie said. But, he warned, a higher-than-normal tide coupled with a 1- to 3-foot storm surge could prevent the Anclote River from normally draining into the Gulf of Mexico until the weekend — and that may cause flooding.
Guthrie also warned that the water table is about 30 percent more saturated than normal. That means the ground is soft, which increases the chance of trees toppling onto houses, cars and power lines.