Flooding was ‘an act of God’

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A Callaway resident with several inches of water in her home was hoping city officials would be able to give her some answers and make quick repairs to the city’s drainage system earlier this week. 

As she and the workers examined the damage she asked a city official what he planned to do about the flooding. 

“I think we should pray,” he replied. 

That probably isn’t the answer Callaway, Parker, Lynn Haven and other Bay County homeowners want to hear, but it may be the only solution in certain circumstances. By Monday, several parts of Bay County received about 14 inches of rain in 48 hours. Parker actually got 17 inches of rain. No town in America can handle that much rain, according to local and national stormwater experts. 

“Those are considered acts of God,” said Bill Hunt, a professor and extension specialist at North Carolina State University.

Hurricane Michael, a category five storm, dumped only 12 inches of rain on the Panhandle. News 13 Chief Meteorologist Ross Whitley broke it down on his Facebook page earlier this week. 

“1 inch of rain is = to 17,378,743 gallons of water per square mile. Roughly Springfield to Callaway to Parker is 4 square miles. Average rain in that area about 13”. Therefore around 903 million gallons of water fell there in 48 hours,” Whitley wrote.

He also pointed out that far less rain can cause serious flooding. Ellicot City, Maryland was smashed by flash flooding after eight inches in May of 2018. It only took three inches in Flat Gap, Kentucky to destroy 150 homes in July of 2015. 

As the waters in Bay County were rising Monday residents in several cities and the county complained that the drainage systems had not been properly maintained following the hurricane. City and county officials countered that the drainage systems were maintained. 

“Even if the system was properly maintained it would be tough to not have flooding,” said Kurt Spitzer, the former president of the Florida Stormwater Association. “ I can’t think of someplace that could handle that.”

City officials also pointed out that the area lost hundreds of trees during the hurricane and that was leading to an increase in flooding. 

“Among other things they hold soil together,” Spitzer said.

The soil, the root system, and the trees themselves are no longer around to soak up some water.

“The fewer trees you have, the easier it is to generate runoff and the more likely you are to have flooding,” Hunt said. 

However, while the loss of trees certainly had an impact it is probably not nearly as much as some seem to think. Trees won’t matter in a really rainy few days. 

“If it is raining an inch a day every day then the trees don’t have as much of an impact,” Hunt said. 

And trees are just one part of the big picture. 

“All the other factors and we have less trees can it make it worse. How much worse? That’s hard to define,” said Josee Cyr, the engineering division manager for Bay County.   

So, how much of a difference? Maybe, a couple of inches, at maximum, Hunt said. 

Think of forest, he added. A forest is the gold standard in catching rain and soaking up water. At most, a forest will absorb 3 inches of rain, Hunt said. If it rains six inches in a forest about three inches of that will turn into runoff. 

The drainage systems in most towns are designed to handle the same kind of load. They can handle three, maybe four inches of rain. But there is a catch to that too.

“Stormwater is not attributed to just one factor,” Cyr said.

Imagine one day you get six inches of rain, Cyr said. But it has been dry and so the ground absorbs some of it and the ditches and drains take the rest. Then, the next day, you get six more inches. Now, with full ditches, the new rain has nowhere to go, except up in streets, driveways and inside low lying homes.

“These little extra factors determine if you are going to have a significant event or not,” Cyr said. 

Then there is the geography of Bay County. 

It’s flat.

“The water table is closer to the surface,” Hunt said. That flat geography is one more factor working against homeowners and stormwater engineers.   

Certainly, cities and counties can spend money improving drainage and squeeze a few more inches of stormwater retention in some areas. But that’s expensive. 

“It’s all a question of how much money will it cost and how willing are folks to fund these sorts of improvements,” Spitzer said. “How many lanes on the interstate do you want to build to accommodate five o’clock traffic?”

And is an expensive new drainage system more important than repaving roads, building parks or police protection? No matter how much you prepare certain rain events will always bring flooding, officials said. 

“That’s not going to change,” Cyr said. 

The only thing that can change, it seems, is where people choose to build homes and what the government does when it realizes some homes are prone to flooding. 

Where cities and counties allow housing development is a major part of the issue.

“Communities will often restrict some growth but they don’t restrict growth enough for storms that would be viewed as acts of God,” Hunt said. 

That’s a growing concern given the changes in weather patterns across the country.  

“We happen to have more frequent Acts of God then we had in the past,” Hunt said. “We as a stormwater and development community must address that.”

Hunt’s first recommendation is something Bay County is already doing. Designate low lying flood-prone areas and turn them into parks or other green spaces. Then, when those places flood, it is not a problem. 

Currently, Bay County officials are using a FEMA grant to buy three properties on Vecuna Circle that frequently flooded. The grant prevents anyone, including the county, from putting another residential home on the properties. Instead, county officials will install a drainage basin. 

“Through the years a lot of owners have used the program,” Cyr said.

Hunt encourages communities to build nice spaces on flood-prone areas. Things like parks, ball fields, and other recreation spaces.

“If it floods that’s OK you are just not going to play baseball that day,” Hunt said. 

These new spaces increase property values and make a town a more attractive place to live, he added. 

“Don’t just buy it out and let it be fallow,” Hunt said. “Make it into an attractive park people would want to visit.” 

Other solutions including building homes up and above the flood-prone areas or home buyers simply choosing other places to live. 

Those aren’t easy answers, but they may be the only answers.

“You can’t argue with the fact that you got 14 inches of rain,” Hunt said. “Let’s do something about it.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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