Planning for Every Contingency

flooded treatment plant

A flooded treatment plant in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Have Recent Weather Events Affected the Water Sector’s Approach to Emergency Planning & Resiliency?

By Hunter Powell

As severe weather events such as flooding and droughts increase in frequency and intensity due to climate change, community leaders are grappling with the need to bolster the resilience of public infrastructure to ensure the safety of their communities while facing budget constraints and competing priorities. In the wake of a volatile hurricane season that wreaked devastation across parts of the United States and the Caribbean, resiliency best practices and contingency planning can help to mitigate risks associated with severe weather.

The consensus among scientists is that the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and warmer oceans, have made these storms far more destructive than they would have been in previous decades. The devastating impacts are powerful reminders that the effects of climate change cannot be ignored. We must act now to adapt to these new conditions by building more resilience into those critical networks. If nothing else, the events of recent months have underscored the heavy cost of doing nothing.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Infrastructure Report Card, more than 40 percent of U.S. water infrastructure is rated poor, very poor or past its useful life. The nation’s more than 800 combined sewer systems are at greatest risk from intensifying extreme weather events with more than 50,000 age-related system breaks occurring each year. Seventy-five percent of systems provide only half of their designed capacity, or less, due to cracks, leaks and infiltration, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA estimates that at least 75,000 sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) occur every year. These overflows discharge nearly 900 billion gallons of sewage into lakes, rivers, streams and other water sources, posing serious health risks to people and wildlife, as well as the possibility of lawsuits and punitive actions.

Preventing SSOs requires constant vigilance — routine cleaning and maintenance to remove unwanted materials and uncover problem areas — as well as investments of time and resources in new equipment, including back-up systems. Unfortunately, there is no way for municipalities to completely protect against SSOs; even the best-maintained sewer systems still spill at the rate of five SSOs per 100 miles.
The best plan of action is to understand the causes of SSOs, be aware of risks to your specific site and prepare for the worst by developing a contingency plan as an essential part of your disaster response and recovery efforts.

By taking proactive steps in advance of disaster events, and by responding quickly and methodically in the aftermath of these disasters, communities can save lives, time, and money. Rapid dewatering, diligent emergency services, and innovative reconstruction efforts contribute to the efficient restoration of cities to their pre-disaster status — and even allow them to come back stronger.

Contingency Planning: Preparing for Extreme Weather Events

One of the most important things community leaders can do to prepare for an extreme weather event is to develop a contingency plan — a rapid-response action plan that can be activated quickly in the event of an extreme weather event to minimize damage and downtime. The plan contains critical information about flood risk areas as well as the equipment needed when severe weather hits.

Contingency Planning Must-Do’s

  • Local know-how is important to create an effective plan. Find out about weather trends in your area and local emergency services to create a relevant contingency plan that will help you to react quickly when disaster strikes.
  • Review your business or community’s critical systems; identify what must remain operational, and what is needed to keep it up and running.
  • The contingency plan should be concise and accessible.
  • Involving professionals when developing your contingency plan will ensure a robust strategy. Getting expert advice on the equipment you need to protect your business and community is particularly important to keep operations up and running. Most importantly, now is the time to act. Smart planning for hurricanes saves time, money and even lives.

The Plan Should Include…

  • An overview of your site conditions and access points including directions to your locations so emergency responders can find your site as quickly as possible;
  • A list of emergency response rental equipment that you will need to keep your operations up and running, for example pumps, hoses and piping, generators, light towers and other support equipment; and
  • 24/7 emergency contact information for qualified and responsive experts who can provide you with the answers and equipment you need at a moment’s notice.

Without a contingency plan in place when a storm hits, there is a greater risk of having to wait longer than necessary for dewatering and bypass equipment to arrive before starting to mitigate damage. During a hurricane, it’s likely that other neighboring communities will also be affected — causing a potential shortage of locally available equipment.

A contingency plan makes sense for all types of emergencies, not just natural disasters. With mechanical equipment it is a matter of when it will fail, not if, and when this happens it is important to have a “plan B” on hand.


Xylem worked with customers in Texas and Florida in advance of the hurricanes, developing contingency plans that allowed customers to put backup pumps and associated equipment in place to protect critical infrastructure.

Xylem worked with customers in Texas and Florida in advance of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma developing contingency plans that allowed customers to put backup pumps and associated equipment in place to protect critical infrastructure. For example, the Godwin Dri-Prime Backup (DBS) systems are permanently installed in numerous lift stations in Florida and provided backup pumping so that the lift station could continue to operate during power outages. A DBS runs on diesel or natural gas and protects against loss of power, transfer switch or control panel malfunction, and even transducer or permanent pump failures. When Harvey was approaching, Xylem teams were able to analyze data for the customers who had contingency plans in place and specify pump requirements on that basis. Of course, Harvey and Irma were historic weather events but the ability to take these preventive steps meant that these customers were as prepared as possible and expedited the recovery effort. In this scenario, local teams become an integral part of the municipality’s disaster recovery team — sometimes even receiving police escorts to bring them to flooded areas requiring immediate dewatering.

When the hurricanes hit, Xylem deployed a total of 600 pumps along with other critical equipment such as generators and light towers in Texas and Florida serving 250 customers across a range of sectors including municipalities, utilities, contactors, oil and gas refineries, mines and landfills.

New Pumping Developments to Help

Effective contingency planning will mitigate the effects of SSOs in emergency situations, but including dewatering pumps within the risk reduction plan can also provide additional peace of mind. The ultimate contingency plan is a permanently installed engine driven pump that operates as a backup system to relieve the primary system in the event of station failure. Backup pumping systems provide 100 percent redundancy while also providing additional capacity to handle wet weather flows and pressures, reducing the possibility of SSOs and minimizing the risk of contamination to the surrounding environment as a result.

Xylem’s Godwin Dri-Prime Backup System (DBS) is a backup pump that runs on diesel or natural gas and can be permanently installed in a pump station to protect against electrical or mechanical failures of any kind. Plumbing directly into the wet well, the Godwin DBS automatically protects against loss of power, transfer switch malfunction, control panel malfunction, transducer and permanent pump failures.

causes of ssos

Increasing the resilience of cities is one of the most complex challenges facing public leaders around the world. According to the United Nations, 66 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, posing a distinct need to create resilient urban centers. What’s more, research by scientists at the International Panel on Climate Change indicates global economic losses from disaster events have increased significantly, further underscoring the need for communities to improve their ability to withstand such events.

Fortunately, community leaders do not stand alone. As outlined in the United Nations’ Hyogo Framework for Action,’ the private sector has an essential part to play in disaster risk reduction. By ensuring the continuity of critical services, no matter the circumstance, companies like Xylem seek to play an integral role in creating resilient communities.

Hunter Powell is a Southeast Regional Application Engineer with Xylem. He is an industry expert with 11 years of engineering experience in dewatering and bypass pumping system design and standards. Over the past five years, he has designed numerous water and wastewater projects for Southern U.S.-based municipal customers and contractors. He holds a degree in Biological Systems Engineering from Virginia Tech.

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