In the Florida panhandle, a local utility and a county have joined forces to reduce the risk of flooding and contamination in a small, low-income neighborhood called Beach Haven, just steps from the Pensacola Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico.
While some homes in Beach Haven date to the 1940s, most of the development has occurred since the 1970s – a mix of apartments and small homes. Until recently, much of the area was on septic rather than sewer systems and, because there was very little stormwater infrastructure, flooding was commonplace.
“Homeowners would not only have floodwater in their homes but also raw sewage,” said Lois Benson, who represents Beach Haven and other nearby communities on the board of the Emerald Coast Utility Authority, which provides water and sanitation locally. The utility was created by the state in 1981 specifically to expand and improve water and wastewater systems in Pensacola and surrounding Escambia County. Board members, including Benson, are elected by the voters, just like the county’s supervisors.
The mixture of septic fields and flooding is neither pleasant nor healthful, which is a special concern in Beach Haven, a community with a historically high rate of child poverty. Most residents work in manufacturing, services or labor.
To alleviate flooding and sanitation problems, the county and utility have embarked on a 12-phase project. Phase 1, which began in 2016, cost $10 million. Phase 2, which begins this year, will cost an estimated $7.6 million. The county and utility are sharing costs. The utility is handling a septic-to-sewer conversion while the county handles drainage, including installing underground drainage and improving retention ponds.
As a result, the area stood up to the rampage of Hurricane Sally much better than it had previous storms, including Hurricane Ivan in September 2004 and an intense downpour in 2014 that generated record rainfall. What flooding did occur in Beach Haven during Sally was largely free of the raw sewage that would have laced the stormwater previously.
“Every single road in there just collapsed during the '14 flood,” said Doug Underhill, who represents the area on the county Board of Supervisors and collaborated with Benson on the projects. “With Sally, the houses did not flood. The neighborhood did not flood. And the roads and everything are in great condition.”
He hailed the collaboration between the county and the utility as an example of how local partnerships can tackle intractable, complex problems, including flooding.