Hurricane Irma hit the Golden Isles with tropical storm-force winds and plenty of rain last week, causing significant damage in the area. The Brunswick-Glynn Joint Water and Sewer Commission did not get by unscathed.
Damage in the six-figure range was inflicted on the utility’s assets, mostly to electrical equipment, officials said Tuesday. The damage resulted in delays in getting service back online, partially because of the last-minute decision not to shut the water and sewer systems down on St. Simons Island, said Jimmy Junkin, executive director of the utility.
“We had the plan to follow through with the shutdown of assets during the storm, which is commonly accepted practice in most of the coastal utilities,” Junkin said.
Junkin said the National Weather Service representative in Jacksonville had given emergency management officials an optimistic impression of the situation, but didn’t attribute the decision not to shutdown the system to him.
“(I) blame myself for that. Just like anyone else, I want to hear the rosy news, but (the weather forecast was) an educated guess,” Junkin said.
He said the utility plans to be more conservative in their decision making in the future.
“That’s the big thing. Maybe in the future if we get hit with a similar situation, I’m going to be more conservative,” Junkin said.
Aside from the damage to electrical equipment that resulted from power failure, personnel were put in harm’s way during the storm as well, he said.
“As soon as the alarms hit and things started breaking and telling us things were going wrong, we had to send personnel out to try to fix it,” Junkin said.
Being more conservative could make things safer for utility personnel, he added.
Now that the storm has passed, the utility is considering what it could have done better.
Regardless of how officials look at it, there would have been delays getting the system back online, Junkin said.
“Had there been perfect power right after the storm, (we) still would have had delays getting everything fixed,” Junkin said.
On the other hand, there would be delays in getting back online even if they had shut the system down. The utility would have to wait for power to be restored to reactivate all of the system, he said.
Due to the way the system is set up, sewer pump stations have to be activated in a specific order to prevent one station pumping sewage to another one that is offline, which can lead to overflows.
The only way to avoid delays in a scenario like the one last week would be to keep the system running the entire time, and that can get pricey, Junkin said.
The most critical pump stations already have generators, but to buy enough for the rest, the utility is looking at around $10 million and more than $500,000 a year in operating costs, Junkin said. Even leasing the generators tops six figures annually, he said.
Once the generators are purchased, making sure they’ll stay running in hurricane or tropical-storm conditions is another hurdle. The utility will have to elevate all the electronics that aren’t submersible to an elevation that keeps them out of a possible storm surge, among other things. Those alterations are costly, Junkin said.
“Do we burn money, or do without service for the three or four days while we wait for power to get back on?” Junkin asked. “(We’ve) always got to consider the benefits to the community, and it seems like the protection to the community could be the overriding factor as more people seem to want to ride it out. I don’t advise that, but we’ve got to manage these things.”
Junkin also pointed out that the utility is still dealing with quite a number of issues with the sewer system and doesn’t have the money to renovate the aging and, in some cases, over-capacity system.
Andrew Burroughs, the JWSC’s new deputy executive director, was hired just in time to assist with the recovery efforts. He came in Thursday and hit the ground running, Junkin said, contributing to the water and sewer restoration work right away.
Burroughs will be replacing Thomas Boland, who stepped down from the utility commission to serve in the role as interim. Boland previously said he has no plans to continue working for the utility once Burroughs fully transitions into the role.