September 30, 2017

The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority suffered extensive damage to small pipes throughout its system and made pumping water to homes and businesses extremely difficult at best and impossible at times.

Also, communication issues plagued the agency in the aftermath of the storm as a 1980s blue landline telephone at the Key West office served as a major source of communication with the Marathon EOC and the FKAA’s facility in Florida City in the first days following Hurricane Irma.

The FKAA board received a debriefing from agency Executive Director Kirk Zuelch on Wednesday about the issues the agency faced and need to correct in the future.

The FKAA’s Stock Island desalination plant was pumping 1.5 million gallons a day and the Marathon plant was pumping about 1 million gallons a day. However, thousands of breaks in smaller pipes led to the agency limiting hours people could access the water because the water was literally flooding residents’ yards and going into the ground.

In Key West and Stock Island, the water was only turned on four hours a day to limit water being wasted. If the water was not rationed, the agency would have gone through all of its waters in storage within 24 hours, Zuelch said.

Zuelch and FKAA board Chair Bob Dean used terms like “bleeding” and “bleeding out” when they described the damage from Irma to small crucial pipes in the system.

“It was like bleeding to death,” Dean said. “No one thought it would have happened like this. … No one ever dreamed it would be house to house.”

“The difference between Hurricane Georges and Wilma was the extent that it affected the entire Keys as whole,” Zuelch added. “It (Irma) was from one end to the other. There were leaks throughout the entire system. There wasn’t much going further than Islamorada and just a trickle in Marathon. … You can’t just turn a switch and everything goes back on. You need pressure and suction.”

The FKAA pumps water into the Keys from an aquifer in Florida City. All five of the FKAA plants in the Keys are back operational, Zuelch said.

The FKAA crews were supported by teams from as far away as Tennessee, South Carolina and other parts of Florida.

“In essence, these crews went to 50,000 meters in 11 days,” FKAA Manager of Operations Tom Morgan said.

FKAA managers struggled to communicate with crews in the field and on the mainland. There was virtually no cell service in the Keys for days and all phone lines at FKAA offices are either electric or connected through the internet, which made them unusable in the days following the storm.

Complicating the issue, the sheriff’s communications tower went off-line during the storm so FKAA workers could only communicate via radio within 10 miles of each other, Zuelch said.

The FKAA did have four satellite phones, but batteries do not last long, FKAA representatives said.

The FKAA workers were able to connect to an old landline and brought in a 1980s telephone to communicate with the EOC and facility in Florida City, which was used as satellite headquarters during the storm.

Workers followed long-standing plans that call for them to report to various stations and offices after the storm has passed to begin recovery operations, FKAA Deputy Executive Director Kerry Shelby said.

Grinder pump sewage collection systems worked as planned with the FKAA crews having to pump them out every couple of days because they rely on electricity, FKAA spokeswoman Julie Cheon said.

The FKAA board plans to have a public workshop with various department heads within the next three weeks to a month to further look at communication and other issues and come up with solutions.

Like many residents, the FKAA rank and file also lost homes in Hurricane Irma. Zuelch estimated that 10 percent of the roughly 270 employees lost their homes.

Zuelch proposed, and the board agreed, to buy 19 FEMA trailers to be placed on worker’s properties to house them until their homes can be rebuilt. The trailers will be purchased from Key Largo Trailer Sales. The trailers would be sold after they are no longer necessary, Zuelch said.

The FKAA has purchased trailers for its workers after hurricanes in the past, Zuelch said.

The FKAA is also working on a billing plan that would cut the water usage section of customers’ bills in half for the month of September, FKAA staff said, as many customers were basically without water for two weeks and it would be fair to discount the water use rate accordingly.

tohara@keysnews.com