Hurricane Irma Has Left Florida Covered in Raw Sewage

Florida is covered in a film of human waste after Hurricane Irma destroyed aging sewer infrastructure. The exposed sewage poses serious health risks to residents.
Jessica Miley
The streets of Miami Beach, Florida in 2009 during a king tide flood.maxstrz/Wikimedia Commons

Hurricane Irma has deposited more than just a trail of physical destruction in Florida, it has also left much of the state covered in raw sewage. While residents deal with lost homes, torn apart roofs and destroyed property, the entire state is also covered in a film of human waste. The exact amount of sewage in public space is not known, there have been at least 113 “Public Notices of Pollution” submitted to the Department of Environmental Protection in Florida. Other discharge reports also indicate that more than 28 million gallons of treated and untreated sewage have been released across 22 counties.

An accurate picture of the spill has not yet been identified

Some of these cases were when raw sewage burst from manholes into non-flooded areas due to pressure changes. These spills were quickly cleaned up and posed no ongoing health risks. But at the South District Wastewater Treatment Plant in Miami, a six-million-gallon sewage spill has reportedly reached the state aquatic preserve of Biscayne Bay. The report describing the spill said the area had been cleaned and disinfected, but that the lost sewage was not recovered, nor were local residents notified of the another horrendous case happened in Seminole County, north of Orlando where a sewer split two million gallons of sewage in six hours. The spill flowed into nearby Stevenson Creek. The creek is already well known for its low water quality. In Volusia County, home to Daytona Beach, no cleanup efforts have been made to deal with a two-million-gallon spill of treated sewage. 


The DEP stresses the reports submitted at this stage are estimates only and that an accurate picture of the spill has not yet been identified. The reason for so much damage to sewage infrastructure is likely due to the state's aging infrastructure as well as the position of many areas on low-lying, reclaimed swampland. Sewage poses a massive threat to human health, particularly in times of crisis when hygiene and access to water are already limited. Mary Grant, the director of Food and Water Watch’s Public Water for All campaign says, “Contamination of water leads to people being exposed to disease.” Humans that are exposed to sewage are at risk of gastrointestinal problems and nasty viruses. “You can get nausea, vomiting, diarrhea … the noroviruses, better known as cruise ship viruses,” said Dr. Valerie Harwood. Hardwood runs a lab at the University of South Florida that researches water quality microbiology. 

Sewage poses a massive threat to human health

Sewage polluted water also carries the risk of carrying bacterial pathogens like salmonella and giardia. If the spills are washed away into the sea, the risk to humans is significantly reduced. Spilt sewage can have deadly effects when it sits in stagnant waterways like lakes, or slow moving creeks. If humans ingest this water, or if open wounds come into contact with this water, there is the possibility of serious illness. Houston is dealing with a similar sewage induced problem after Hurricane Harvey's serious damage to sewage systems. Stagnant waterways close to the city have been discovered to hold high-risk levels of fecal matter and E. coli.

While cleanup is the first step, both Texas and Florida will need to invest serious amounts of time and money into updating their sewage system to ensure these disastrous consequences are avoided next time.

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