Wednesday, October 4, 2023

The smells of a post-storm Carolina Beach: Sewage, rotten eggs, decomposing yard debris

After the island evacuated to stay safe from Hurricane Florence, some residents returned to unpleasant smells.

Ocean water on Carolina Beach featured a different turbid makeup after Hurricane Florence swept through the region. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Ocean water on Carolina Beach featured a different turbid makeup after Hurricane Florence swept through the region. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

CAROLINA BEACH — Some residents feel Carolina Beach smells like raw sewage, with water that smells like rotten eggs.

After 17.7 million gallons of untreated and treated wastewater were dumped into the Cape Fear River during Hurricane Florence, it appears new smells have developed on the island.

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“The water smells like swamp [expletive],” longtime resident and Carolina Beach native, Connie Phipps, said. “There’s fecal matter in it.”

After the storm, Phipps said she had to do multiple loads of laundry to get the stench out of her clothes. While driving through the island, she hits pockets of a strong, sewage-like odor. “It’s floating back up into the street,” she said. And Phipps isn’t alone; she said her local friends smell the smell, too.

Sewage overflows

Even Carolina Beach’s Mayor, Joe Benson, has noticed the odor.

“I’ve recently had a few people come up to me about the smell of the water,” Benson said. “What I got was just the nasty smell or it smells funny, like raw sewage.”

Between Sept. 13 and 17, approximately 17.7 million gallons of untreated and treated wastewater discharged into the Cape Fear River. Though the treatment facility off Dow Road is only permitted to process three millions of gallons of wastewater in a single day, during the peak of the storm, the plant processed nine million gallons, according to an email written by Town Manager Michael Cramer.

This processing was “significantly over” the three million gallon capacity the system was built for, Cramer wrote.

In addition to the discharge into the Cape Fear River, approximately 226,320 gallons of wastewater spilled into the town’s streets and surface waters from manholes and pump stations over the same time period.

At least two residents physically removed sewer manholes and clean out caps during the storm, an activity the town regards as illegal, town emails show. Still, Benson said the town’s smells were primarily coming from other sources, not from sewage spills.

“I mean, I guess it could,” Benson said. “I did see a few streets that looked like they had been kind of hosed down.” 

The source of the roadside smells would be speculative, he said. With seven open receptacles around town, yard and household waste accumulating on curbsides and Waste Industries coming back online Monday after going 12 days without pickups, Benson said he believes the odor will decrease in the coming days.


From a public health perspective, Rebecca Wilkins, the town’s utilities administrative supervisor, said there’s nothing to worry about.

“Our water is perfectly fine,” Wilkins said. The smell, a “rotten egg, sulfur smell,” is caused by water heaters that need flushing out.

After most residents evacuated the island before the storm, standing water was left in water heaters. “As water sits, it tends to get a funk to it,” Wilkins said. “You just have to flush out your water heater.”

Carolina Beach sources its raw water from groundwater aquifers, Benson said, which would not be impacted by recent sewer spills. Bridget Munger, N.C. Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson said hydrogen sulfide is present in some groundwater, and can be common in beach towns when people aren’t home for periods of time.

As for smells around town, Sharon Martin, N.C. Division of Air Quality spokesperson, said her department had not received any recent logged complaints.

Wilkins said near her property on the island she had noticed the smell of decomposing leaves and organic matter, but not sewage.

If residents feel their water has a particularly concerning odor, Wilkins said they can call into town hall. The town will create a work order and send a team over to investigate the matter.

Where did the wastewater go?

With so much wastewater spilled, it’s unclear whether the millions of gallons spilled by Carolina Beach’s wastewater treatment facility and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority have made its way to the oceanfront.

Since the storm hit, the island’s oceanfront waters have turned more turbid. The darker, “pee-color,” Benson said, is something that happens from time-to-time, but is usually no cause for worry.

“Are there any trace contaminants in the Cape Rear which would then be flushed out through the inlet?” Benson asked. With water quality results not yet available, he couldn’t confirm.

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at

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