On Jan. 11, a group of homeowners in the Florida panhandle town of Cantonment, near Pensacola, braved the COVID pandemic to gather in an Escambia County meeting room to discuss a threat that has plagued their lives far longer than the virus – flooding.
Flooding has been a recurring nightmare for residents of the Bristol Creek, Bristol Park and Ashbury Hills subdivisions. After a heavy rain event in 2014, 160 homes flooded; 70 flooded during Hurricane Sally last September.
The county commissioner for that area, Steven Barry, convened the homeowners on Jan. 11 to discuss prospects that the county might be able to get federal money to buy out some of the flooded homeowners. He wanted to gauge their interest in selling if the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gave the county money as part of its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
While some homeowners said they’d sell, many passionately expressed their desire to stay. They wanted assurances the flooding could be stopped.
“We're a community that believes in hope,” one unidentified man said during the public comment portion of the meeting. “We have been hoping for many years. Unfortunately, that hope is falling short.”
He and his neighbors are weary of vague promises from the county, he suggested.
“You’re speaking to a group of people that don’t want ‘feasibilities,’ or ‘these are proposals,’ or ‘these are things that might happen in the next decade, may happen in the next 15 years,’” he said. “What is being done to fortify our neighborhood immediately?”
The question came up more than once, prompting Barry to offer a vague, but promising-sounding, reply.
“I think it’s very realistic to think that if we’re here a year from now, there will be tangible benefits on the ground,” he said. “There are improvements that will be done in that timeframe.”
But he didn’t repeat the caveat he’d issued earlier in the meeting: that no single project will solve the problem; it will take all the proposed projects, fully completed and working in concert, to substantially reduce the risk of flooding in these subdivisions.
To accomplish the goal, the county has a roughly outlined $50 million plan. It involves constructing 10 or 11 large water-retention ponds throughout the Eleven Mile Creek water basin and widening the creek near the subdivision so it can handle a larger volume of water when necessary. The county would need to acquire the 10- to 20-acre pond sites, and all the homeowners along the creek would need to agree to sell their homes to the county.
The county doesn’t have $50 million lying around to fix the problem of this cluster of subdivisions, around 200 homes. It has similar flooding problems throughout the county.
Homeowners hoping to sell their flood-prone homes to the county under the FEMA program face hurdles. The program isn’t designed to bail out homeowners. Its grants are intended to make communities more resilient against future flooding. The purchase of homes is needed to widen the creek bed. For that reason, FEMA is unlikely to buy houses that aren’t directly along the creek, which is most of them.
So, the Eleven Mile Creek plan is shrouded in uncertainty, not just because the funding seems likely to dribble in over decades, at best. But because it’s unclear that it will solve the problem once completed. Continuing development throughout the basin and more frequent intense-rain events are just two of the variables.
This dilemma has divided the homeowners into two camps: those who cling to hope their homes can be saved and those who think the neighborhood needs to be condemned – an option likely to be costlier than the fix.
Facing these two highly problematic options, the most likely next step for these homeowners is another flood.
Commissioner Barry didn’t reply to an email and voice message from Flood Trends seeking comment after the meeting.
MORE: Cantonment Resident Recovering From Second 100-Year Flood