In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma Monday, roughly 70 percent of all the sewer lift stations in Glynn County were not functioning. Since then, it has only gotten worse, jumping to about 75 percent according to Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water Sewer Commission officials.
That has essentially turned the majority of the sewer system in the county into a septic tank — and it is full, said the utility's public information officer, Jay Sellers.
As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, 127 of 167 stations were without power, but utility executive director Jimmy Junkin said that number would be changing throughout the week as power is restored and JWSC crews are able to begin reactivating them. All three wastewater treatment plants running on generators.
That is why Sellers said it is critical the water and sewer system is working properly before the tens of thousands of people who heeded the mandatory evacuation return.
“We’re about to have wastewater in the streets,” Sellers said Wednesday at the Emergency Operations Center at the Public Safety Complex on Golden Isles Parkway.
Holding a full bottle of water he illustrated how pump stations that are full have nowhere to go but out when the pumps start again. If all start running again without the proper repairs, the results could be catastrophic, he said.
The utility has extended a water conservation plan until Friday that asks customers not to shower, to only flush toilets when absolutely necessary and to use sinks sparingly. They are also asked not to run dishwashers or washing machines. These are measures they say may help to prevent a full system from overflowing.
The strained sewer system is just one of the many reasons emergency officials say reentry into Glynn County is not feasible.
“We want to bring people back more than anything,” said Jay Wiggins, director of the Glynn County Emergency Management Agency. “First off, we’re sorry this happened. We didn’t want this storm to come here.”
But it did, as Wiggins said he and his colleagues expected, and despite Irma’s shift to the west that seemed to push Glynn out of the cone of uncertainty, the county was hit hard, Wiggins said.
He is aware there are people who question the decision to evacuate and why they cannot return, especially as reports come in of people who are running out of money and gas where they are. Given the impacts seen on the infrastructure in Glynn County, much of which is not immediately visible, Wiggins said the decision was sound.
“Ultimately I believe we were right,” Wiggins said, adding that the impacts from Irma have topped those from Matthew a year ago.
The water and sewer system is only part of the problem, he said.
Nearly all of Glynn County’s more than 40,000 customers were without power after the storm Monday. Since then, the number has dropped to about 60 percent of the customers, more than 28,000, who are still without power. Paulo Alburquerque, Georgia Power area manager, said more than 15,000 customers in both Glynn and McIntosh County have been restored.
Still, with crews working around the clock to fix poles that were blown over or taken down by trees and lines that were snapped, “We’re expecting about 90-95 percent of the county should be restored by Friday,” Alburquerque said.
Electricity is needed not only to run lift stations, but also to operate traffic lights. A quick survey of traffic lights around the mainland suggested more than 90 percent of the lights are out. Many have already been replaced, but debris from fallen traffic signals still litters major thoroughfares like Golden Isles Parkway and many lines where they used to hang are empty.
Glynn County Commission Chairman described the situation as fragile.
Too many people driving without traffic lights will take valuable law enforcement resources away from patrol for traffic duty, he said. Too many people flushing toilets will make sewer lines and lift stations overflow.
“Once that pipe fills up, it’s going somewhere,” Brunson said. “We just can’t handle the masses.”
It is why the borders of Glynn County are still closed to anyone without a critical worker pass.
Then there is the flood damage. Irma brought a record storm surge to the Golden Isles and caused significantly more damage than Matthew a year ago, officials said. Standing water is still in many coastal, waterfront and low-lying areas on both the mainland and St. Simons Island. The major impacts were countywide.
Wiggins said emergency shelters are already being coordinated in county for when people return to find their homes unlivable. So far the only shelter confirmed will be at Selden Park, but others are likely to be named later.
Then there is the wildlife, Wiggins said alligators, water moccasins, birds and other wildlife are displaced because of the storm surge and may be in unexpected places.
Brunswick Mayor Cornell Harvey described the storm as a community disaster that has deeply impacted all areas Glynn County, but before people reenter, the infrastructure must be able to handle the load.
“We have to make sure as much as possible the area si safe before we let people back in,” he said.
Wiggins echoed that sentiment. He said everyone in the decision making process is asking everyone — those in county without power or water and those who evacuated — to be patient. He hopes to have some updated information after a 3 p.m. meeting with all officials, but warned the road to get things back where they need to be is difficult. He also stressed that crews have only had about 48 hours to work so far, but also that resources are strained because federal aid is already stretched thin after Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Georgia Power crews are working to restore power for more than 1 million people without electricity around the state and because other resources are also being used in Florida.