Hurricane Irma leaves behind foul stink across Central Florida

Not content to damage homes, toss trees and knock out power to millions, Hurricane Irma has left behind a noxious brew of funk, too.

Residents across the region Tuesday reported catching a whiff of a foul, rancid smell that officials blamed on dead fish, stagnant water, flooded ponds and rotting debris — but likely not sewage.

Juliana Calloway said she started to notice the smell Sunday — an acrid odor in the air outside her home in Altamonte Springs, like spent fireworks. At first, she feared a neighbor was burning debris. Soon, Calloway realized the stink wasn’t just in her neighborhood — it was outside her office in Winter Park, too, and at her son’s preschool.

“This morning, it was just so bad,” she said. “I have a 4-year-old, and he was like, ‘It smells like rotten eggs out here, Mommy.’ ”

The stench was reported in Orlando, Longwood, Altamonte Springs, Oviedo and Lake County, among other communities. Many took to social media Tuesday to complain.

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Melanie Adamski, who lives near Wekiwa Springs State Park, said she began to notice it Monday. As a cancer patient, Adamski was already suffering nausea, so the smell was especially unwelcome. “It smelled kind of like something rotting — chemicals or sewage,” she said.

Officials say the rotten smell is common in the aftermath of a storm, such as Irma, which rampaged across the state last week with torrential rains and powerful winds.

“As soon as we smelled that, it was like, there’s that smell again. That’s the Fay smell,” said Alan Harris, emergency manager for Seminole County, referring to the tropical storm that caused heaving flooding in 2008. “I remember it very well.”

Government experts pointed to a variety of culprits.

Rotting fish are likely a factor because flooding can kill them off in large numbers by disrupting the salinity and oxygen levels in lakes, rivers and oceans, said Greg Workman, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“I personally believe that there’s been multiple causes. That’s just one of them,” he said. “If you’re in an area where there was a fish kill, of course, decaying fish will give off an odor.”

Orlando officials also noted that heavy rains can saturate the groundwater, resulting in a sulfur-like smell similar to rotten eggs. The muck and sediment left behind as flooding recedes can also stink, they said.

The storm also prompted widespread sewage overflows when pumping stations lost power. While spilled sewage stinks, it’s unlikely to produce the rotten egg smell many described, or to blanket the entire region in a funky odor, officials said.

“You have to be right next to a lift station that’s overflowing to smell that — not miles from the lift station,” Harris said.

Irma also blanketed the region with fallen leaves, branches and entire trees. While it’s unlikely those are noticeably rotten already, local governments are expected to need weeks to collect all the yard waste that residents have piled up since the storm.

Orlando has crews out collecting bundled or bagged plant debris seven days a week, said Mike Carroll, the city’s solid waste manager. Irma left behind about 300,000 cubic yards of plant debris in Orlando — four times as much as the city collected in all of 2016.

Overall, the storm left 1 million cubic yards of debris each in Orange and Seminole counties, according to early estimates. Both counties have drop-off locations for residents who want to clear it themselves.

Carroll said finding contractors with the right equipment to pick up storm debris has been unusually challenging because many crews were already busy in Houston cleaning up the destruction from Hurricane Harvey when Irma set its sights on Florida.

To make matters worse, Irma was massive — causing damage in every population center in the state. Cities across Florida, Carroll said, are “all chasing the same disaster company resources. Our primary contractor has had great difficulty getting more resources.”

Not everyone was bothered by the funk.

Bob Williams of Longwood said he’d seen neighbors griping about the smell online, but he didn’t notice it until he spent a few hours Tuesday clearing branches. Though Williams detected a “slight odor of sewer gas,” he said none of the plant debris seemed to be rotting.

“It’s all dried up, and it doesn’t smell bad,” he said.

jeweiner@orlandosentinel.com, 407-420-5171 or @JeffWeinerOS on Twitter

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