Raw Sewage Still Poses Threat in Aftermath of Hurricane Irma

Residents of Everglades City, Florida remain on notice to boil drinking water due to fecal contamination of Irma floodwaters.

Published Sept. 21, 2017

Updated Sept. 25, 2017
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One Everglades City, Florida resident has died and another contracted a leg infection requiring amputation after wading in floodwaters contaminated by sewage and seaborne bacteria left behind by Hurricane Irma, which battered the small fishing community with 140-mile-an-hour winds and inundated it with an 8-to-10-foot storm surge on 10 September 2017.

According to local press reports, 72-year-old Lee Marteeny died at Physicians Regional Hospital after treatment for respiratory failure and internal bleeding. Florida's District 20 Medical Examiner established the cause of death as "Vibrio bacteremia due to water contamination complicating liver disease, ethanolism and severe cellulitis and lymphedema of lower extremities."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Vibrio bacteria (for example, V. vulnificus and V. parahaemolyticus) occur naturally in seawater and can be acquired either via consumption of undercooked seafood or the direct exposure of a wound or abrasion via immersion in contaminated water. In 2005, the CDC reported that a number of patients were diagnosed with Vibrio-related illnesses traceable to storm surge floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina.

Sewage system overflows were reported all over Collier County in the days immediately following the hurricane, and tests conducted by Collier County Pollution Control on 17 September confirmed the presence of extremely high levels ("too numerous to count") of fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria in the floodwaters that still surround much of Everglades City. Local residents remain under notice to boil all drinking water and many have lined up to receive tetanus shots and precautionary treatment for infections at a temporary medical clinic set up at the Everglades City school.

Although an inspection of the Everglades City sewage treatment plant a few days after the storm found no substantial damage, a state Department of Environmental Protection official told Naples Daily News, it had not been conclusively determined whether or to what degree the "troubled" sewage plant, which the city was already under court orders to repair or rebuild, contributed to the bacterial contamination of the water.

As one of the Florida communities hardest hit by Hurricane Irma, Everglades City was still without power and running water when Gov. Rick Scott visited to survey the damage on 17 September, noting that the floodwaters were still very high and housing is a "significant issue" for local residents. According to Everglades City Mayor Howie Grimm, in fact, two-thirds of the city's homes and buildings are now uninhabitable and there are no overnight shelters in the immediate vicinity, meaning that many residents are stuck in housing contaminated with raw sewage and mold.

Grimm says it will take years for the community to recover.

This is a 22 September 2017 update from the Collier County Dept. of Health:

Everglades City is currently under a boil water notice. There are crews working to get power completely restored to Everglades City and surrounding areas. Hurricane Irma hit this area with a significant storm surge, and right now we are focused on the response and recovery phase, which may take some time.

The Florida Department of Health in Collier County (DOH-Collier) has been working with our community partners to aid in response. DOH-Collier staff have been going door-to-door, particularly in Everglades City, for several days beginning Sunday, Sept 17 to provide health education. We also deployed an environmental health team Saturday, Sept. 16 to assess conditions and aid in mitigation. Also on Sunday, we set up a vaccine clinic at a local church in Everglades City that provided TDaP vaccines and we have been there every day since providing vaccine to residents. There is currently a Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) deployed in Everglades City providing medical services. We’ve also mobilized additional resources to the area including shower facilities, mud boots and additional vaccines.


Morris, Risa.   "Two-Thirds of Everglades City Homes Uninhabitable."   18 September 2017.

Murphy, Brett.   "Medical Examiner Confirms 'Storm-Related' Death in Everglades City."    Naples Daily News.   20 September 2017.

Murphy, Brett and Cranney, Joseph.   "After a Death in Everglades City, Rising Concerns of a Public Health Crisis."    USA Today.   17 September 2017.

Staats, Eric.   "Hurricane Irma: Bacteria 'Too Numerous to Count' in Everglades City Floodwaters."    Naples Daily News.  19 September 2017.

Staats, Eric.   "Hurricane Irma: Sewage Backing Up into Collier Streets, Homes, Businesses."    Naples Daily News.   14 September 2017.

Florida Dept. of Health.   "DOH Cautions To Avoid Flood Water."    18 September 2017.


Updated [25 September 2017] with medical examiner report on cause of death of Lee Marteeny and additional information about Vibrio bacteria.

David Emery is a West Coast-based writer and editor with 25 years of experience fact-checking rumors, hoaxes, and contemporary legends.

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