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Historic rainfall overtaxes Tampa’s wastewater system

TAMPA — As flood waters caused by record-breaking rainfall receded Sunday, officials worried that Tampa’s overtaxed wastewater system may take days to recover.

And with more rain expected early this week, wastewater may once again bubble over onto the city’s streets as it did Saturday and early Sunday because pumping stations couldn’t keep up with demand.

“No system could have accommodated this amount of rainfall,” Tampa’s Mayor Bob Buckhorn said at the entrance to the Homes of Regency Cove community, where a busted culvert led to flooding on Gandy Boulevard and the temporary closure of the Gandy Bridge on Saturday night and Sunday morning.

With a “significantly high potential for additional rain” through Sunday night, Buckhorn urged Tampa residents to stay indoors.

If people have to leave home, he encouraged them to drive in areas that have not been historically flooded during severe weather.

Still, Buckhorn said that “most major roads” should be open Monday morning.

Brad Baird, the city’s administrator for Public Works and Utility Services, said workers were no longer dealing major road blockages Sunday evening, as much of the floodwater around the city had receded.

“The wastewater system is still a major concern,” Baird said. “It could take a couple of days to get caught up.”

The city’s wastewater system moves about 60 million gallons on a “regular day,” but had been forced to handle 155 million gallons over the previous 24 hours, Buckhorn said Sunday.

“It has stressed our system as much as it could be stressed,” Buckhorn said. “Manhole covers have been popping up. With the ground this saturated, we also have concerns about cave-ins.”

Earlier Sunday, Shirley Campbell, who has lived in the Homes of Regency Cove nearly 20 years, said she had never before seen such flooding in the area.

City officials said the culvert near the community’s entrance had been clogged by “unknown debris,” leading to the flooding on Gandy.

“I was very nervous, thinking we might have to evacuate,” Campbell said. “There was water gushing out at the front (of the community) and went over to the (nearby) bait shop.”

Around 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Jean Duncan, the city’s director of Transportation and Stormwater Services, said crews had been working since early morning to fill the culvert with rock to stabilize it.

“Between the amount of water in the canal, and the large amount of debris, it was too much for the culvert to hold,” Duncan said.

She said it was too soon to know when the culvert would be fixed, but she noted that floodwater on Gandy had greatly receded. Unfortunately, more rain was expected throughout the night.

“That could put more stress on the street,” Duncan said. “The more water that tries to get through, the tougher the situation.”

She said residents in the area seemed understanding and patient. As she spoke, a front end loader could be seen stuck in the culvert. In the background, two palm trees in a resident’s yard were knocked over.

Floodwater affected various parts of the city, from tony Davis Islands to usually-bustling Westshore Boulevard and around South Tampa, city officials said.

Parts of Kennedy Boulevard and Swann Avenue also were badly affected, officials said.

Even as residents scrambled to fill an estimated 4,000 sandbags in hopes of keeping floodwater from their homes, rain continued to sporadically fall Sunday.

At the city’s Solid Waste facility on Spruce Street, a steady line of motorists waited to pull in early Sunday afternoon, each eager to get sand.

Deanna Cannella of South Tampa characterized her neighborhood was “a big flood zone.”

“It’s very bad, but we were finally able to get out today,” she said. “We were stuck for hours. We live in front of a pond and we had several inches (of water) in our garage. Thank God, it was just the garage. It’s been inching toward the front door.

“This is the worst I’ve seen it since I was a kid.”

Kenneth Johnson, who has lived in the Carver City area for about a decade, said he had never before seen so much floodwater in the community.

Johnson spoke as he loaded sandbags with a tiny blue plastic shovel. He said water was “within inches” of breaching his house.

“My house is on a lower (level) than my neighbors,” he said. “I’m worried about it coming through the back door.”

William Andre was loading sandbags with his family for a friend who owns a bait shop on Gandy.

“He told me it flooded one other time with the hurricanes (of 2004), but he’s never seen it like this,” Andre said. “The flooding was really bad, bro. It was nuts.”

Throughout Sunday, city officials urged residents to heed traffic advisories and obey traffic signs and detours. Because it is hard to determine how deep floodwater can be, motorists were cautioned not to attempt to drive through standing water.

Motorists also were reminded to treat non-functioning traffic signals as a four-way stop and to avoid any downed or hanging power lines, as they may be live.

Buckhorn urged families to keep their children from playing in the flood water, due to health risks.

Officials encouraged residents to sign up for Alert Tampa, the city’s official emergency alert system, to receive time sensitive notifications sent directly to a person’s email, cell phone, and in some cases, home phone.

To sign up, visit tampagov.net/alerttampa or call (813) 231-6184.

Weather updates will continue to be shared on social media via Facebook on the City of Tampa Government and Tampa Police Department pages, and via twitter @cityoftampa and @tampapd.

Buckhorn said it could cost $200 million to bolster the city’s stormwater system, some of which is comprised of pipes 100 years old.

“Our system is old and needs to be expanded,” he said. “We need significant economic enhancements in wastewater. We can’t go on at the pace we’ve been going.”

gfox@tampatrib.com

(813) 731-8162

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