Of hurricanes, sewage, and fixing our existing communities first

Florida Pollution Sign
Photo by: Christian Wagley

And the hurricanes just kept coming…In finishing my first full month on the job as GRN’s coastal organizer for Florida and Alabama, here came another one as Hurricane Nate churned toward the northern Gulf Coast. 

Fortunately, Nate was only a Category 1 storm when it came ashore on the Mississippi coast, but it still managed to do some damage. Here in the Florida Panhandle, despite avoiding a direct hit, there was still some coastal flooding, and even another sewage spill that sent about 100,000 gallons of partially-treated effluent into Santa Rosa Sound at Pensacola Beach.

These sewage spills seem to be a regular consequence of tropical weather here in Florida, pointing-out one of many vulnerabilities in our system that places the environment and public health at-risk. Every time the wind blows hard enough or the rain falls hard enough, sewage is often backing-up in our streets or releasing into our waterways.

These spills of raw and partially-treated sewage put disease-causing organisms in our waters and add damaging nutrients that lead to an overgrowth of algae, causing further harm. As advanced as our society has become, there’s no justification for sewage continuing to flow down our streets or into our bays and bayous.

Our infrastructure needs to be hardened against these events, with backup systems and updated pipe and lift stations that can withstand disturbance. These heavy rainfall and tropical events have become more common in recent decades and are predicted to increase due to climate change according to the National Climate Assessment—a report by more than 300 Federal experts and the National Academy of Sciences.

Sewage spills and many other infrastructure issues seem to happen disproportionately in the older neighborhoods in our communities, in places left behind in the age of sprawl that has seen population spread far-out into formerly rural areas. Ironically, because these older neighborhoods are more compact, they usually cost less to provide services such as sewer.

In one famous study in Tallahassee, FL, researchers found that the actual cost of providing sewer services in the wealthy northeast part of town was more than twice as much as the cost of providing sewer in the older downtown areas.  Yet the older neighborhoods—where residents had much lower incomes—paid the same sewer connection fees as those uptown, resulting in a subsidy to the wealthier neighborhoods of nearly $7000 per sewer connection.

We spend lots of money and put lots of attention on the shiny new stuff out at the edge of town—the new commerce park, the new subdivision, the new highway. Meanwhile, our older existing neighborhoods and their often crumbling infrastructure get comparatively little attention.

There’s a great opportunity to help fix these deficiencies in Florida, as communities across the panhandle look at a new round of BP oil spill funding from the State’s economic damages claim—called Triumph Gulf Coast. Infrastructure, sewage, hurricanes, rainstorms, climate change, equity, and the health of our waterways and those who work them and enjoy them…it’s all interrelated.


National Climate Assessment:


Tallahassee study:



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