For ten days, untreated sewage leaked into flooded streets in the industrial zone of Opa-locka, a nearly bankrupt South Florida city so dysfunctional it has spent the last two years under a governor-decreed state of emergency. Each day on their way to work, hundreds of people slogged through the murky, foul-smelling water, unaware of the increased risk of dysentery, E. coli, and meningitis.
They say the city never told them the knee-high puddles were full of poop.
“It smells like sh••. It smells very bad,” said local business owner Ali Alvarez. But that’s pretty normal, he said. Stagnant water covers the area for more than half the year due to shoddy storm water infrastructure incapable of draining the area after it rains. Alvarez said he knew the standing water was a health risk but didn’t know the water at the time was actually full of fecal matter.
Miami-Dade County tests confirmed the early August flood water near the pump contained 50 times the amount of fecal matter that would close a beach. (One test showed 3,450 enterococci — bacteria — per 100 ml of water. Beaches close at 70.)
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“If they didn’t cordon off the area immediately, you’ve got a serious health hazard,” said Merrett Stierheim, who oversaw the Opa-locka administration on behalf of the Florida inspector general for six months in 2016 and 2017. County records suggest the city took no action at all for ten days.
Stierheim, a Miami-Dade administrative legend, had seen this coming. In his final report before leaving his post, Stierheim predicted what he would later call a “catastrophe” for public health — the inevitable failure of Opa-locka’s obsolete sewer system after city officials squandered funds allocated to fix it.
Now, the system is too deteriorated to be patched, and the city doesn’t have the money to replace it. Sometimes it doesn’t even have enough money to pay the county for water and sewer services.
On Aug. 1, county inspectors noted the pump was temporarily turned off, causing the system to back up. Workers at the station said the pump was being cleaned after repeatedly jamming. Without an operational pump, or a system for bypassing it, as people in the mostly industrial area along Northwest 147th Street continued to flush their toilets, and rain seeped into the system, watery sludge overflowed from an unfiltered manhole in a nearby street.
“That’s raw sewage,” said Frank Rollason, county administrator and member of the Opa-locka oversight committee. It’s a problem he too had been expecting.
The sewage mixed with stagnant flood water from a recent rain, spreading particles of human waste for blocks in every direction. (A similar leak occurred in early May, according to county records. It’s unclear if the city ever disinfected the area as required under health codes.)
It seeped into several warehouses, covering ground floors with half a foot of the rank water. It stunk but many business owners in the area said they weren’t informed of the sewage leak.
“That’s what we’re looking at — the human exposure — someone walking through a puddle thinking it’s a puddle of water when it’s really not,” said Rashid Istambouli, professional engineer and senior chief of the Miami-Dade County Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources.
A sewage leak of any size is legally considered an emergency. Once it is aware of a leak, a city has 24 hours to identify the source of the problem and disinfect per state health department regulations. Opa-locka officials took 10 days to act, according to county inspection reports. At one point, according to the records, Opa-locka officials even denied that there had been a sewage leak, despite multiple water quality tests performed by the county that proved otherwise.
Finally — ten days after the county’s order to clean up — Opa-locka officials disinfected the water by spreading powdered chlorine in the puddles. The stagnant water went from dangerous to disgusting but mostly harmless to human health (“mostly” because it was still a breeding ground for mosquitoes).
Then, just a few weeks later on Aug. 27, county inspectors were called back to 147th Street. This time, raw sewage was coming up through the floor of Gwen Meckler’s industrial laundromat.
It wasn’t the first time, said Meckler. The liquid bubbles up through floor drains in one of the three warehouse bays almost every time the nearby sewage pump fails, which she says has been as many as five times a month. She is the only business owner interviewed by the Herald that the city informed of the increased health risk at all.
“We all wear boots around here,” she said. The laundry business employs a 24-hour clean-up crew to mitigate the mess, disinfect, and pump out the water into the streets since the drains don’t work. “The cost involved has been enormous,” she said.
Pump station 8, located near Meckler’s building, is supposed to pump sewage from that zone into main sewer lines that return the sludge to the county for processing. But pump station 8 only sometimes completes that task and has been in need of serious repairs or replacement since at least 2009, according to county records.
Alvarez says he often sees evidence of liquid bubbling up from the manholes along the always-flooded streets. “On top of the water you see some bubbles like when something is fermented,” Alvarez said.
The county continues to monitor the situation, but has limited power to force Opa-locka to comply. A spokesperson from Gov. Rick Scott’s office said the state would send a team from the Department of Environmental Protection to Opa-locka “to evaluate the best path forward to alleviate this flooding issue.” The timeline for that inspection has not yet been released.
There is no easy fix. City officials say the problem is the entire sewer system — 50-year-old cracked clay pipes, leaky joints that take in storm water and overtax the system, and the defunct pump stations that work only sometimes. County records show that only four of Opa-locka’s 19 pump stations — 21 percent — are considered to be in “OK” condition. It’s the worst percentage in Miami-Dade. In the next worst — Florida City — 58 percent of pumps are “OK.”
In 2009, Opa-locka signed an agreement with the county promising to repair or replace Pump 8 and the others deemed inadequate by county inspectors. The job was supposed to be done in 2014. Then the deadline was extended to 2015. In most cases, records indicate significant repairs have still not been made. And experts and independent auditors say the system is rapidly deteriorating.
“There are accidents ready to happen at any moment,” said Opa-locka’s interim city manager, Newall Daughtrey. It’s not just 147th Street, he said. “There are three areas in the city that look just like that one.”
As it stands, the city cannot promise sewage won’t continue to leak into the streets. There is no money to replace the system.
Rampant corruption caused the state to freeze funds to Opa-locka. Serious debt has led to bad credit, scaring off potential lenders. And as corrupt officials spent the majority of the last decade padding their pockets with bribes, they failed to collect millions of dollars in water bills that could have otherwise created a fund to pay for these infrastructure projects. Since then, the county has taken over water billing and an ongoing FBI probe into the worst of the corruption has landed the former manager and other city officials in jail.
“Our residents are basically paying for bad decisions of the past. That bill is coming up,” said Opa-locka Commissioner Matthew Pigatt.
Now, under the state of emergency, Opa-locka cannot receive grants, pending the competition of a total audit of its finances. And initial payouts from the only state loan Opa-locka secured for infrastructure projects like sewer and storm water were misdirected into the general fund and used to pay payroll. So the state cut Opa-locka off.
The rest of the loan is available only to reimburse the city for expenses related to big projects, but not to pay for them up front. Daughtrey said even pinching pennies, the city can’t afford those projects, which will cost tens of millions.
“I am good but I’m not Houdini,” Daughtrey said. The only option, he said, is to raise the already-high property tax rate to its legal cap in order to earn the revenue for the necessary improvements. The idea is not popular, and prompted two members of the city government to move for his termination. A 2-3 vote against firing him means Daughtrey will stay to argue for his infrastructure plan in the September commission meetings.
“I plan to do right come hell or high water. You can fire me but it will be for doing right,” said Daughtrey, who was fired from the position in 2002 when he pushed for replacing the aging sewer and storm water systems.
While not as urgent as raw sewage leaks, the lack of storm water drainage along 147th Street has also caused serious problems. First, it puts pressure on all of the old pipes, including ones that carry drinking water. Second, the stagnant water breeds mosquitoes that can carry deadly diseases. And most significantly, floods cause enormous potholes in the road. They’re treacherous on the best of days, but flood the area with rain, and the craters become invisible death traps for even the largest vehicles.
The feet-deep trenches have been responsible for breaking axles, tipping cars, and bottoming out semis. Many customers take their business elsewhere rather than risk entering the flood zone, according to half a dozen business owners interviewed by the Herald.
“When it rains here it’s just amazing. It’s like a third world country. If it rains for a week we lose a lot of business,” said Rafaell Navarro, who owns a machinery repair shop. He said a week of rain can cost his business $15,000. Others, he said, are struggling to make enough money for food.
About a month ago, an employee of the laundromat had a health emergency that required an ambulance. The emergency vehicle couldn’t get through because of the potholes and deep water. Meckler said her husband drove the employee to a nearby hospital in their large truck after waiting in vain for EMTs to arrive.
“There is just so much of this that to me is unconscionable,” Meckler said. She wants the governor to intervene. “How dare you allow this to happen?”
Dozens of business owners formed an association to fight for change in Opa-locka. Together, they say they pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes a year, but that the city has mismanaged their money.
“You’re basically ripping us off,” said Alvarez, one of the founders. “You’re charging us for services that you are not providing.”
In the best case scenario, according to Daughtrey, a solution involving roads, sewers, and storm water is still two years from completion. Until then, residents and business owners along 147th Street have few options. Even if they wanted to sell and move, business owners say they’re hard pressed to find buyers for nearly inaccessible buildings frequently swamped in contaminated water.
“They’re between a rock and a hard place,” said Rollason. “I don’t know what the final end is, whether the city is going to fold and the county is going to take over.”