Allen Drake had raw sewage running down his Hilton Head Island driveway Wednesday afternoon — into his street and backyard, and, as he says, “off into the grand beyond.”
Of all the things that happened to him during Hurricane Matthew, including an evacuation to Bluffton, losing power, and finding three feet of flooding in his Hilton Head Plantation home, this was a problem he hadn't expected.
And it could continue for him and other residents for weeks.
Hilton Head Islanders and potentially residents of Port Royal may experience sewage overflow if they, like Drake, live near a manhole or near exposed PVC pipe due to numerous breaks in sewer and water lines. When residents returned to the island Tuesday and began using their showers and toilets again, sewage and dirty water began backing up fast.
“There's scores of (breaks). There's hundreds,” said Hilton Head Public Service District general manager Pete Nardi.
Palmetto Hall went so far as to ask residents who have returned to the island to leave again.
“Taking showers, and doing laundry is out of the question,” the property owner’s association wrote in a community-wide email. “Residents have not heeded this warning and there is now raw sewage flooding the roads in Hilton Head Plantation.”
“If you are away, we would strongly urge you to stay out of town as this situation is extremely hazardous. If you came back to your home and could leave again please consider doing so.”
Long Cove’s general manager Trip Shine expressed similar concerns in a recent email to community stakeholders that was obtained by The Island Packet.
“Great progress has been made (in restoring water and sewer service), but you are getting ready to have major health problem (sic) since you have allow (sic) the return of the residents without restoring services,” he wrote to town manager Steve Riley, PSD officials and others. “As expressed in my conversation with Steve Riley Monday evening, I am very disappointed the Town did not consider the position of the local community managers, but succumbed to political pressure to open the Island and subject it’s (sic) citizen (sic) to unsafe and unsanitary conditions.”
On Wednesday, about 70 percent of Hilton Head’s pump stations were back in service, but they’re not guaranteed to stay on as recovery continues and more line breaks are unearthed, Nardi said.
That’s because when thousands of trees uprooted early Saturday, they brought whatever was snagged in their roots with them. In some cases, that meant PVC pipes from the island’s sewer and water lines. And as crews keep pulling up trees and removing broken hydrants and water meters, they will create and locate more line breaks.
“Seconday damage from the recovery is expected,” Nardi said. “It’s not like an electronic thing where you can bring it up on a live grid and say, ‘Oh yeah, this ones beeping.’ These PVC lines, you have to see it, you have to know about it from an outage.”
That’s not good news for Drake who lives on Bear Creek Drive in Hilton Head Plantation where a nearby manhole has been spewing stormwater since Sunday.
"There's more than just water coming out of there," he said.
As a result of the continued outages, there is still a boil-water advisory on Hilton Head and no one should be bathing, showering or flushing because it can back up the sewer system, Nardi said.
"It could not be a more serious thing," he said.
It’s a possibility in other areas of the county, as well.
Beaufort-Jasper Water Authority maintains 500 pump stations — also called lift stations — and about 91 were out of power on Wednesday, according to utility director Joe DeVito. Crews are using mobile pumps powered by diesel engines and generators to manually pump sewage out of the 91 stations without power.
Sewage collects in wells at the stations, and when the wells are full, pumps kick on to push the waste water down lines leading to treatment plants. If the pumps aren’t powered, wells can overflow and lines can back up, creating a health hazard.
Residents should also remember that if they are in a home with sewer service but no power, they can assume nearby pumping stations also are without power and restrict the amount of water they put down their drains.
“We did have sanitary sewer overflows,” DeVito said. “Our goal was to have no active overflows as of yesterday afternoon and we reached that goal with the help of SCE&G.”
Beaufort County warns that people should avoid standing water out of concern for contamination.
Town of Port Royal Mayor Sam Murray was also among those this week asking for patience from those still without power in their homes: Getting the pumping stations operational again is worth the delay.
“If you can take a one-minute shower versus five minutes, that is great,” DeVito said. “If you can not flush the toilet as much and turn off the water while brushing your teeth, that also would help. ... The more you can keep the usage down the easier it is on all those people who have worked since the sun came up Saturday morning.”
Van Willis, Port Royal town manager, said overflowing sewers pose a health risk.
“If it is not pushed to the treatment facility, it can start to bubble up to the surface,” Willis said. “You do not want gray water on the ground because of disease and other problems it can cause.”
Can you flush your toilet?
▪ On Hilton Head Island: No.
According to Peter Nardi, general manager of Hilton Head Public Service District, residents on Hilton Head Island should not be flushing their toliet during the boil water advisory to avoid backing up the sewage system.
▪ Elsewhere in Beaufort County: Yes, but use moderation.
Conserve water as much as possible if you are located near water and sewer line breaks or out-of-service pump stations.