TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA/WRIC) — As Hurricane Ian brings catastrophic flooding across the state, people in impacted areas may find themselves asking, “can I flush my toilet?”

The answer depends on how your community plumbing system works, according to Lou Hidalgo, owner of Master & Sons Plumbing in Richmond, Virginia. Hidalgo says massive rainfall places pressure on city storm and sewer systems. If those systems become filled and rainwater floods into the streets, flushing should be avoided, the plumber advises.

For people in rural areas using septic tanks, Hidalgo says heavy rain can cause drain fields to become saturated and distribution boxes to reach their limits. People living in these areas should avoid flushing until they are confident their septic tank is not at capacity.

Septic tank owners who believe their tanks are flooded should contact a plumber once the storm passes, Hidalgo recommends. Sewer lines that have become compacted during flooding may need to be cleared by a professional. Pumping is not always the solution, as it can cause damage to tanks that are unnaturally full.

When power outages and flooding happen at the same time, plumbing issues can worsen, particularly in rural communities with older water systems. Limiting water usage during flooding can prevent further damage to water systems, Hidalgo says.

Hurricane Ian has already caused nearly 1.5 million power outages in Florida, according to tracking by PowerOutage.us. Gov. Ron DeSantis said in previous storm updates to expect large numbers of outages as the storm continued along its path through the Sunshine State.

Impacts from Hurricane Ian on sewage

Manatee County

  • Three line breaks in the Manatee County potable system were reported in the leadup to Hurricane Ian’s arrival. Two were repaired, according to county officials.
  • The Manatee County government said about 15% of sewage lift stations were without power and asked customers to limit flushing in a message reading “Refrain from using your drain.”
  • Bradenton city officials are asking residents to conserve water, saying the wastewater treatment facility is “in danger of overflowing.”

Polk County

  • Bartow officials warned residents Wednesday morning to use less water as flooding and electrical outages started, saying by doing so there would be “less of an opportunity for sewage issues to occur, including sewage backing up into your home.”
  • If the electricity is still out at pumping stations and sewage treatment plants, Bartow officials said “every effort should be made to conserve water usage and to avoid adding water to sewer lines.”
  • Haines City officials asked the same of their residents on Wednesday evening, saying limited water before and after Ian’s arrival and passage would reduce sanitary sewer backups caused by power outages.

Pinellas County

  • Clearwater officials asked residents to “refrain from flushing or disposing of water into the wastewater system unless absolutely necessary, especially on the barrier islands: Clearwater Beach, Sand Key, and Island Estates.”
  • Officials said not using the Clearwater sewer system would help it remain operation “as long as possible” as Ian came into Florida.

Hernando County

  • Officials asked residents to prepare for Hurricane Ian’s landfall, saying power, water, and sewer service may be affected by the storm. Residents were encouraged to boil water as crews restore functions to local systems.