Cape Fear Public Utility Authority Executive Director Jim Flechtner had his eye on an exposed water main near the New Hanover-Pender county line as Hurricane Florence battered the coast.
The water main provided two-thirds of Wilmington’s drinking water to the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant north of downtown Wilmington. Floodwaters washed out part of U.S. 421, exposing the pipe that ran under the road. Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) crews worked through the morning hours of Sept. 15, a day after the hurricane made landfall, to fill in the washedout section and prevent erosion.
The loss of the water main was one of several problems, including a fuel shortage and the release of some wastewater, faced by CFPUA during the storm. Despite torrential rainfall, historic flooding and massive power outages, CFPUA never stopped providing clean water to the Wilmington area.
Flechtner credited CFPUA’s staff for being professional and prepared for the storm.
“It was critical that we continued to provide water for folks and we did because of the people here,” he said. “We have such a well-trained and professional staff here they didn’t miss a beat.”
The Greater Wilmington Business Journal sat down with Flechtner to discuss the storm, the utility’s response and how the storm impacted the system.
The transcript was edited for length and clarity.
GWBJ: Someone compared Hurricane Florence to being stalked by a turtle. We had time to get ready. How did CFPUA prepare for the storm?
“We prepared across a lot of fronts. We prepositioned our generators and got them running before the storm hit. We didn’t know if power went out we could get to those pump stations. The pump stations were running before the storm got here.
We doubled up crews at plants. We had extra people there to do maintenance not knowing if they could get there once the storm hit. Over the last few years, we’ve advanced our emergency preparedness to the highest level in the state. I don’t know another utility that is as prepared as we are for these kinds of events.”
GWBJ: CFPUA discharged some wastewater into the Cape Fear River. Can you tell me what happened?
“We lost commercial power at the height of the storm, and two generators had mechanical problems because the storm was here for so long. We couldn’t send people out in the midst of that to fix the generator. We had to wait for the winds to die down and then they needed a part. We lost about 5.25 million gallons of partially treated wastewater. It had been through several of the filtration processes. It didn’t make it through disinfection.
During these extreme events, you can’t use the same standard on a sunny day for consistent performance. When the bypass occurred, it went into the river. We feel terrible about what happened at Southside, but in the big scheme of things our system performed very well and so did our people.”
GWBJ: At one point, there was some concern about maintaining the water system because of a lack of fuel.
“Our local fuel suppliers were having trouble getting people here with the fuel. They were having trouble with their supplier getting fuel into the trucks. We were running on generators at our plants, and they can burn 100 to 150 gallons of fuel an hour.
We were about two days away from not having power to run the plants.
We weren’t hearing from the suppliers that they were confident they could get us fuel. The smart thing to do after that is to let people know so they can make preparations. Fortunately, working with the county emergency operations center and state emergency operations center they were able to find us diesel fuel.”
GWBJ: Was there any other time other than the fuel shortage when water could have been shut off?
“Friday night [Sept. 14] when the raw water line had a washout on 421. We were 50-50 if we were going to lose our water supply. Our crews assessed it in the field and around 11 p.m. Friday came up with an action plan. They asked us to give them to the morning to see if [the plan] worked. And it did. They worked until 3:30 a.m. to get that [pipe] stabilized.”
GWBJ: After the Sutton plant breach that spilled coal ash into the river, CFPUA wrote a detailed response refuting reports that it jeopardized drinking water.
“When I saw the coal ash issue on the Duke [Energy] side I wasn’t concerned about our drinking water. It never crossed my mind that we needed to put out a release. Once we saw some of the information coming out saying it could affect the drinking water, we went ahead and addressed it with the media. [The breach] was well below the intakes. Our intake is protected by Lock and Dam #1.”
GWBJ: What is the state of the water system after the storm?
“The system is in very good shape as far as we know. What we haven’t seen yet is a lot of our raw water transmission from here to Kings Bluff. It has been inundated, and some of it is in areas that are hard to get to. We’ve made a request for a helicopter Friday [Sept. 28] when the waters recede so we can get up in the air and look for washouts – look for trees that are trapped against pilings that could be a problem. We’re hoping Friday we’ll have a much better sense if our raw water system has been affected. Overall, we’re in good shape.”
GWBJ: Are you getting any indication there is a problem or do you just want to look at it?
“We want to see it. Logs can come down and get trapped on an aerial crossing. Or a tree can come down and be resting on our pipe. We’ve got to get to it before something worse happens.”
GWBJ: What grade would you give CFPUA for this storm?
“I saw a group of very professional people work tirelessly on behalf of this community. Every decision that was made was based on facts and information because of the system we’ve built to make sure when we’re dealing with these things we truly understand what is happening. From that perspective, I’m very happy about what we did. We will do a full after action of the event, and we’ll find areas we can improve. I’m sure there will be places. Every organization can improve, and we’re no different. But I think the result is we didn’t have any water disruptions during this event and overall, despite the partial bypass at Southside, our wastewater system did very well. Overall, we didn’t have any true failures in our system.”