Report: Cocoa officials knew water mains were ‘exposed' before Irma hit

Cocoa Water Department suffered historic system-wide loss of pressure Sept. 11

COCOA, Fla. – After Hurricane Irma, a quarter-million people and businesses in Brevard County were without running water, including NASA and Port Canaveral, when a Cocoa Water Department main waterline failed. An investigation by News 6 partner Florida Today found that department officials knew about the exposed underwater pipes in the Indian River Lagoon for years.

The main waterline break at State Road 520 near the Indian River, which caused mass outages was known to Cocoa officials as early as 2012, reported the Florida Today.

Logan Diving & Salvage of Jacksonville, a contractor used by Cocoa to inspect the pipe, found during inspections of the underwater lines in 2012, 2015 and 2016 that portions had the sediment on top — and in one case, underneath — had eroded away, exposing the pipes to elements. The pipes should be buried for maximum protection.

City officials say they knew about the exposures and recognized that repairs were needed, but stressed in interviews and in internal documents that there was no indication any of the pipe along SR 520 would fail. City officials felt they were on top of the problem, and in March 2017 had filed for a permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to shore up the lines. A contractor had been hired and was due to fortify the pipe when Irma struck.

"The reason those pipes were not put as 'critical' is because it wasn't deemed 'critical,'" Utilities Director Jack Walsh told the Florida Today Thursday while discussing the city contractor's pipe inspections.

City Manager John Tikanich said in a statement Friday that the permit was approved in July to repair the exposed areas.

“The contractor was scheduled to complete this work in early September 2017,” Tikanich said. “Unfortunately, Hurricane Irma changed those plans.”

On Sept. 11, a 36-inch water main on SR 520 separated at the joints, knocking out the system and leaving 250,000 people without running water.

"Our worst fears were realized — that it was underwater," Titkanich said of the water main break that triggered the pressure drop in the whole system.

The city's system endured 42 water main breaks in Irma, twice the number it suffered during Hurricane Matthew last year.

Despite the catastrophic SR 520 pipe failure during the storm, city crews were able to get water flowing in less than three days of losing pressure. Boil notices followed for several days after the storm.

Read the Florida Today series on Cocoa’s “big break” here.