St. Petersburg city officials strongly advise residents to reduce unnecessary water consumption and avoid straining the wastewater system as Hurricane Ian approaches.
During a Tuesday afternoon press conference, Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley asked for the public’s help to mitigate some of the storm’s effects by avoiding washing clothes and dishes and watering lawns. However, he stressed that the city has no plans to completely shut off water and sewage services.
Tankersley explained that St. Petersburg has a “huge” wastewater system that mostly relies on gravity to deliver sewage and runoff to treatment plants. While the public works department may have to close specific pumps or shut down electrical equipment inundated by the storm, he said it should not affect large swaths of the city.
“I do not foresee a scenario – at all – where we are turning off water to the entire city,” said Tankersley. “Or even to entire neighborhoods.”
A city release announcing the press conference noted that since 2016, St. Petersburg’s leadership has allocated $400 million to replacing old pipes and improving and modernizing the wastewater and stormwater apparatus. Despite those efforts, the possibility of a 10-15 foot storm surge and 20 inches of rain creates the need to limit stress on the system.
During the design phase, Tankersley said officials anticipated times when storms would render some equipment inoperable. For example, he said if the city needed 20 deep injection wells under normal conditions, it built 25.
“So, it’s our job to be concerned,” added Tankersley. “That’s why we got hundreds of people working in this industry … and yes, we are constantly monitoring.”
Tankersley said about 500 staff members would remain onsite at city facilities. They will ensure equipment remains operable, conduct preventative maintenance and test pumps and electrical systems.
The city does not expect a complete shutdown as it utilizes gravity to move water more than electrical pumps. However, officials anticipate many residents will shelter in place through the storm, which could add stress to the system.
The City of Treasure Island will shut down wastewater collection at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Officials in the coastal community are asking residents not to flush toilets, something Public Information Manager Yolanda Fernandez noted is not part of the St. Petersburg recommendations.
She explained that Treasure Island is under mandatory evacuation orders, and those officials expect most residents to heed warnings. With many more people remaining in St. Petersburg and using water services, Fernandez hopes the plea for public assistance will help avoid a similar scenario.
Tankersley said city employees are working tirelessly to do their part.
“We’re making sure that all the tanks are at the level they need to be at,” he said. “We have crews constantly going around and checking everything.”
Tankersley urged residents not to use water unless it is a health necessity, beginning with the onset of tropical storm force winds of 45 mph, which he believes will arrive Tuesday night.
The city will also close its sandbag locations Tuesday evening to ensure employee safety. As of Monday, workers helped distribute 50,000 bags, assembling up to 7,000 per hour. He also credited citizens for their assistance in the laborious process.
Despite procuring sand from across the state and a preponderance of people to help fill bags, Tankersley said the city would close down the sites before strong winds move onshore.
He also offered a message of solidarity to residents.
“We here at the City of St. Petersburg – we not only work here, we live here,” said Tankersley. “And we took these jobs to protect the city because it’s the city that we live in, and we are dedicated to doing that.”