The storm after the storm: Will sewage spills from Hurricane Ian trigger algae blooms?

As the number of deaths attributed to Hurricane Ian continues to mount, the focus rightly remains on the storm’s human toll.

Once the smoke clears, though, we may also find the environmental toll to be horrific.

The path Ian took across Florida is strewn with sewage systems that were overwhelmed or bypassed, facilities that stopped working due to power outages or other factors, aging infrastructure that simply failed in the wake of the massive storm. 

In the City of Bradenton, some 9 million gallons of sewage was dumped into the Manatee River after officials were forced to bypass the city’s treatment plant.

In Brevard County, a reported 7.2 million gallons of “highly treated” sewage overflowed from the county’s South Beaches plant into the troubled Indian River Lagoon. Though Ian had weakened significantly by the time it reached Brevard, it was enough to overwhelm the system.

Sewage systems around the Orlando area have been overflowing, flooding homes and “pouring untold thousands of gallons into lakes,” according to the Orlando Sentinel. Residents have been told to stay out of city lakes — and use the bathroom as little as possible.

In Miami, thousands of gallons of sewage were discharged into a storm drain from an overflowing manhole.

And at the epicenter of Ian’s wrath, some areas of Fort Myers and other hard-hit communities on Florida’s west coast stunk of sewage as the waters receded.

A map tracker published by Florida Today identified dozens if not hundreds of other sites where Florida sewage spills/pollution had been reported to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Sewage dumped into the street or sensitive waterways could contain E Coli, parasites and viruses; in Lee County, Florida Department of Health officials specifically warned of Vibrio vilnificus, a type of flesh-eating bacteria that can cause severe illness and death.

And all the sewage likely contained untold amounts of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which could fuel harmful algal blooms in the months to come. Indeed, some researchers worry the amount of human waste flowing into the Caloosahatchee River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico will be “unprecedented.”

Could it help fuel another red tide event on the Gulf coast? Could the additional nutrients in the Indian River Lagoon and other east coast waterways fuel additional algal blooms, triggering more seagrass die-off and ultimately more dead manatees?

We’ll find out soon enough.

Some of this may have been inevitable; a storm the magnitude of Ian was going to inflict casualties and overwhelm infrastructure.

But in places like Brevard County and even Fort Myers — where, well before the storm, residents complained of overflowing sewage during heavy rains — it spotlights the upgrades that must be made to aging infrastructure. This will require billions of dollars. We have no choice but to find the money, and spend it.

Hurricane Ian exploited Florida’s vulnerabilities. Once we’re done picking up the pieces, the focus must be on how we can make Florida less vulnerable to a storm like this — and its aftereffects.