Hurricane Michael lasted only a few hours on Oct. 10, 2018, but three months later, its devastation continues to be felt in significant ways.
As Jan. 10, rolled around this Thursday, several roads or sections of them are underwater as the result of heavy rains in the days and weeks following the storm, and there’s more rain in the forecast for the weekend. There are eight or 10 roads that typically flood in heavy rain events, but many more than usual are underwater this time around.
Storm debris in ditches isn’t helping matters, either. Some of that debris dropped in directly during the storm. Some of it was pushed there by property owners trying to get their land clear of downed trees and limbs big and small. The situation is a bit of a catch-22.
On one hand, local officials are encouraging people to get their debris to the right-of-way as soon as possible, so it can be hauled away by contractors with financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Very soon now, FEMA’s involvement will end and the debris not on the right-of-way in time will not get moved under that federal assistance push. But because, in most cases, the right-of-way is such a narrow strip, sometimes there’s little recourse but to put that debris so close to the ditches that some of it falls in. And some people simply load it in there on purpose because they see no alternative.
County Road and Bridge Superintendent Jayson Cain and his team of heavy equipment operators, laborers and drivers, which is short about 20 crew members right now, have their work cut out for them in getting the ditches cleared. And more than tree limbs sit in the way of accomplishing their tasks as quickly as Cain and the frustrated public would like. The crew has almost 800 miles of dirt roads to deal with at any given time.
Normally, rain-displaced dirt that makes is way from those roadbeds into ditches during heavy rains can be scooped out and incorporated back into the roadbed. But the rain won’t stop. Much of that dirt is just too muddy to move and use right now, and more keeps slipping in every time it rains hard.
And with the storm debris making drainage even more difficult as it blocks the natural flow and circumvents man-made drainage strategies, it’s a real dilemma the crews and for the motorists who must face those compromised roads and filled ditches.
There’s so much water and debris, and so few hands on the plow, that the problem sometimes seems insurmountable to those who must travel the compromised roads day after day. Washouts and small but deep rivulets of degradation rattle the teeth if drivers don’t slow way down and navigate the bad spots very carefully.
With so many miles of dirt roads, compared to 400 miles of paved, the effects are felt by drivers across the entire community.
And there’s also some private property underwater. It’s happening in places that have never been underwater before, so far as the current landowners can recall.
Sheila Goodson and her family on Fresno Road in Cypress are seeing a scope of flooding that no one in the family – including those who have lived there more than 30 years – can recall. Goodson has had to turn their potable water system off because the well is underwater, along with two or three acres, and their septic system is at risk as well.
Goodson said she believes something extraordinary, beyond extreme rainfall, has happened to release a torrent of water upon the land.
“The water was like a little river, coming through the woods,” she said. “Something’s definitely going on. We can’t see and know exactly where it’s come from or what, but we need some help out here. I’m hoping that someone can go and see where the source of all this water is. I don’t think it’s all rainwater. Me and my husband think that some kind of drainage is clogged up or something, or there’s sinkhole or something has come undone somewhere. This aint normal. We’ve been without water for more than a week, half our property is underwater, and 40 acres of timberland (nearby) looks to be underwater, too.”
She suspects a sinkhole has opened up somewhere on nearby property, or that some catastrophic drainage failure off-site is to blame. She’s been in touch with the Northwest Florida Water Management District in hopes that the agency can help by finding the cause and perhaps solving the problem.
But Cain, who said he hadn’t heard anything from Goodson, said he suspects that the extreme rain is to blame. He thinks Douglas Pond, to the west of Fresno Trail, is filled and overflowing onto her downhill property.
According to Cain, Fresno’s elevation starts at 145 feet, where it meets Douglas Pond Road, but that the elevation reduces to 122 feet as it courses on to the east. That 22 foot drop invites water to flow there naturally. He says that, with rivers and ponds already full, and the underground water table already saturated, there’s simply no place for the water to go. The ground can’t absorb more until things dry out a bit.
“I’m finding, 99 percent of the time, that’s the problem when people are saying their property is flooded,” Cain said. “There’s a pond on Douglas Pond Road and I believe that is the main issue there. I’m finding that kind of backup is common. The water table is full and the amount of rainfall we’ve had is flooding everything.”
Cain said he thinks the situation on Fresno, and in similar places elsewhere, is a natural result of so much rain.
“As rain fills the basin, it has nowhere to go,” he explained. “It will eventually pop off, but until the rain is over, there’s just not much to be done. These are closed basins, so water can’t get out. It has to go into the ground or evaporate into the air, but the ground is already saturated so it’s flooding on land.”
Cain said he is confident that natural processes will eventually solve the problem.
“The ground water table has to drop before it can seep in,” he said. “There’s absolutely nothing you can do to change that. I’m looking to see if anything can be done to relieve it, but I haven’t found one area where I can do anything to benefit the affected properties. It fills up on dry land because the water table is up. There are places in the Compass Lake sand hills that are under, and there are places all over where this is a problem. Even if you pumped the water out of a hole, it will just fill right back up right now. Time and dry weather are the only things we have to help us.”
Meanwhile, Cain and his workers are doing what they can to grade un-flooded roads and keep them passable, but time and sunny skies are the only remedy for those that are underwater.
“This will subside as the rivers go down, but there’s not much we can do until then,” he said.
As for the many seriously damaged roads that could be repaired because they’re not underwater, Cain said there’s a challenge there, as well. “We can’t buy rock (small broken down bits with which to fortify the roads),” Cain said. “’The rock mines are flooded and we’ve already pretty much depleted our stockpile trying to meet the need,” Cain said. “We had about 200 tons for each of the five districts—almost all of that is gone and the suppliers can’t make more because they can’t mine their materials locations. We’ve got one prospect that we think we’ll be able to tap soon, but not quite yet.”
The mainline work crews are on the job currently Monday through Thursday, 10 hours a day, for a full 40-hour week, but some volunteer to work overtime on Fridays. Soon, though, because of public outcry about not having full crews working on Friday, the workers schedules will likely be alternated so that some work 10 hours Monday-Thursday and some work 10 hours Tuesday-Friday. Voluntary overtime is expected to continue if those on the Monday-Thursday schedule also wish to work Fridays, or if the Tuesday-Friday crew members want to work Mondays.
Cain said he’s doing his best to manage with a crew down roughly 20 members. But it’s hard finding extra bodies with the skills necessary to run heavy equipment safely. He’s adding some general laborer positions to help those skilled individuals so that more can be done per shift, and he’s advertising for specific heavy-equipment positions rather than sending out more generic position posts as he has been doing in the last few years, in hopes of more easily catching the eyes of those who have the skills.
But Hurricane Michael has dealt him a hit on that front as well—the pay for storm debris work is typically much higher than the county’s hourly wage, so the competition for workers is extremely high in what was already a difficult set of jobs to fill.
Cain has been talking to Jackson County Commissioners about the possibility of some wage adjustments to address that problem, and is expected to present more on that option to the board soon.
As the department continues to address its many challenges, Cain still wanted to make sure that local residents stay mindful that debris should be brought to the right-of-way as soon as possible so that they don’t miss out on the opportunity to have it hauled away at no personal cost, while FEMA is still in the mix. He anticipates that will soon end as far as debris removal assistance is concerned.
But, he said, there’s an important request associated with that invitation: Please don’t clog the ditches.