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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Another challenge for hardest-hit parts of Florida: Finding clean drinking water

The Matanzas Pass Bridge in Fort Myers, Fla., Sept. 29, 2022. In Florida, where nearly 50 boil-water advisories were in effect, residents in counties ravaged by Hurricane Ian struggled to find clean drinking water after the storm cut off electricity to keep water flowing and severed pipelines.

By Campbell Robertson and Richard Fausset

Francine Cole’s problem was a depressingly common one this past week in Florida: First, there was too much water. Now there is not enough of it.

Cole, 50, lives in a two-story apartment on the western coast of Florida that was battered and flooded by Hurricane Ian. After the storm, she and her husband found themselves holed up on the second floor in a county where the water system was broken; the power was mostly out; and many of the taps, including hers, were dry.

The downstairs, Cole said, reeked of sewage. She had bought a couple of cases of water before the storm, but now she had to decide whether to use it to clean or to drink. She and her husband had tried to clean up with water from a small pond, but it proved to be an ineffective solution. The grime was unbearable. They were thirsty.

“We’re really worried,” she said.

Hurricane Ian, which made a second U.S. landfall Friday afternoon on the coast of South Carolina, visited tremendous visible devastation as it cut its northeastward path across the Florida Peninsula this past week, leaving wrecked houses and businesses along the Gulf Coast and thick tangles of tree limbs and debris farther inland.

But some of the most potent problems in the state were less easy to see, including the effect on water systems, as the electricity needed to keep water flowing went out in some areas, and water lines were severed by the storm. The state’s water troubles were reflected on a regularly updated list of boil-water advisories maintained by the Florida Department of Health. On Monday, it had no such notices to report. On Friday, there were nearly 50 advisories in effect.

“As far as I’m aware, every single case is related to the hurricane,” Jae Williams, a Health Department spokesperson, said Friday.

Boil-water advisories, which alert residents to the possibility of biological contamination in a water system, can be issued for a number of reasons and are often prompted by malfunctions or damage that results in a loss of pressure or other problems. Residents at low elevations are typically told to boil any water used for drinking or cooking for at least one minute.

But in some of the hardest-hit places, water was not coming out of the taps. And owners of electric stoves had limited options in a state where more than 1.7 million power customers were without electricity as of Friday afternoon.

Some of the areas on the boil-water list were small, like the Spanish Main Travel Resort, a recreational vehicle park in Hillsborough County, on the western side of the state. In other cases, the advisories covered entire cities, like Bartow, Florida, a city of about 20,000 near the geographic center of the peninsula, where the water system experienced several line breaks.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Friday that it had sent 1.6 million liters of water to Florida and promised that another 6.6 million liters were on the way. The water was part of an enormous federal response focused on providing basic human services, including 5.5 million meals, more than 400 ambulances and four aircraft to evacuate medically vulnerable people from nursing homes and other facilities.

But the worst trouble was in Lee County, where a badly damaged water system was affecting a population of nearly 760,000, forcing residents to hunt through a tableau of ruin for bottled-water distribution sites and forcing state and federal officials to improvise some creative solutions.

Cole and others were given some water Friday at Next Level Church in Fort Myers, where orange-shirted volunteers — most of whom had no power or water in their own houses — piled cases of water and food into the trunks of waiting cars. The volunteers stuck a yellow sticky note with a number on each driver’s door reflecting the number of household residents, a running tally of desperation: 13, 6, 1.

Victoria Kent, 28, who pulled up with her 8-year-old daughter in the back seat, had subsisted on juice boxes over the past two days. She wouldn’t be paid until the end of the month and didn’t have the money to buy last-minute storm supplies, including extra water.

And anyway, she said, she had to keep working — selling insurance over the phone from her house — until the power had cut off. They were almost out of food and had run out of water completely. “We’ve just been driving around to see who can help us,” she said. “And I’m down below half a tank.”

The problem was affecting institutions as well as residents. As of Friday morning, three hospitals in Lee County were without water, forcing administrators to evacuate some patients, said Mary Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association. “The public water system has had breaks, and the hospitals are not getting access to water, or the water pressure is completely inadequate,” Mayhew said in a phone interview.

Later in the day, however, Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said in a news conference that the state had “solved the water problem temporarily” by setting up tanks at the hospitals and “ferrying 20,000 gallons of water about five times a day” to each hospital. Guthrie also said that more than 14,000 gallons of diesel fuel had been shipped to Fort Myers for use at a water plant that served the hospitals.

The water challenges were different farther inland. In Polk County, in Central Florida, Ian stormed through Thursday night, leaving streets strewn with debris and thousands of people without power. Also without power Friday morning were 55 of the county’s 350-plus “lift stations,” which pump wastewater to the local treatment plant.

Mark Addison, a manager for utilities in Polk County, said one short-term solution was to warn people to conserve water and not overwhelm a system that could send dirty water back through their pipes and into their homes.

The ultimate solution — which speaks to another looming infrastructure challenge for Florida — was to work to get the power back on quickly.

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