Kenneth Owen, 81, a retired Navy pilot, lives in a lakefront home in Pensacola close to places he depends on – the Navy hospital, exchange and commissary. His otherwise ideal location has one major flaw. The lake his house sits on, Lake Charlene, has a troubling penchant for flooding.
In 2014, after record-setting rainfall, 130 of the 275 homes in the Lake Charlene subdivision flooded. Owen’s house took on 36 inches of water, causing $130,000 in structural damages and $40,000 in personal property losses, he told Flood Trends, adding that he had to leave his house for eight months while repairs were made.
The flooding was so traumatizing and costly to the community that the county in which it’s located, Escambia, got a $2.1 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to improve the lake’s drainage because, during heavy rain, far more runoff flows into the 12-acre lake than can possibly flow out. There’s simply more pipe capacity going into the lake than coming out.
The county’s plan to install two 60-inch outflow pipes would protect 86 percent of the homes that flooded in 2014 from flooding again, the county said in 2015. But it also required the community to keep Lake Charlene nine inches below full pool to give it greater capacity to store runoff during a downpour.
Some of the leaders of the subdivision’s homeowners’ association (HOA) resisted the plan, saying any plan should protect 100 percent of the homes at risk – not just 86 percent – and that the lake looked best when it was full, rather than nine inches lower.
The project required the HOA to grant an easement to the county to do the work. People with homes at risk, like Kenneth Owen, argued desperately for the easement to be granted. In the end, however, it wasn’t. The work wasn’t done, and the $2.1 million federal grant was lost.
In September 2020, Hurricane Sally flooded the Lake Charlene subdivision again. Owen’s house took on 20 inches of water this time. All the carpeting in his house needs to be removed, as well as all the drywall up to four feet above the floor. And, of course, Owen will need somewhere else to live during the months it will take to reach an insurance settlement and get the work done. He gets his flood insurance through FEMA.
But Owen doesn’t plan to return.
“I'm looking for a house that's on a very high hill somewhere not anywhere near water,” he said in an interview. “I'm too old. I can't go through this again. I'll never get the value of the house back because who's going to go into a known flood area and buy a house when nobody’s doing anything to prevent flooding? Not one damn thing.”
To Owen, the failure to capitalize on the grant remains inexplicable.
“Eighty percent (of the homes protected) is better than none,” he said. “It turned into a total fiasco. It’s just absolutely crazy they didn’t do this.”
Bernie Vanosdall became the president of the Lake Charlene HOA one month before the 2014 flooding and steered the community through the botched grant opportunity.
“I want to make it abundantly clear that some people think that more outflows would have prevented their houses from flooding,” he told Flood Trends. “And they’re very angry that their houses flooded. I don’t want their house to flood. The board of directors of the homeowners’ association doesn’t want their house to flood.”
But many did. At least 20 Lake Charlene homes sustained major flood damage from the September hurricane, according to the county. Many more sustained lesser damage, according to residents.
“Every day, when I drive out of my driveway and down the street, I see houses that have drywall and possessions – bedding and other things – on the curb waiting to get picked up because they flooded,” Vanosdall said. “My house didn’t flood, but I have a lot of empathy for those whose did.”
A number of public meetings had been held to discuss the proposed project and Vanosdall said he started his presentation at each one by saying he supports the plan but he wants it to be better.
“We fought back and forth over all of that because we didn't want to prevent 86 percent of the houses from flooding,” he said. “We wanted to prevent 100 percent.”
Owen believes the HOA board of directors held out against the county on the easement in order to get other concessions, such as being able to keep the lake completely full. Owen argued they should get the drains installed and then argue over other matters.
Speaking of Vanosdall, Owen said, “He had the gall one time to stand up in a meeting and say, ‘I’ve got the county over a barrel.’ I said, ‘No, you don’t have the county over a barrel. You have me over a barrel.’”
Vanosdall agreed that the lake’s appearance was an issue.
“We have a lot of beautiful brick homes in a neighborhood that's well-maintained,” he said. “Lawns are cared for. People have a lot of trees, a lot of bushes and everything is beautiful. And part of the beauty of the neighborhood is this lake.”
As it is now, he said, rain is needed “to keep it a lake rather than a mudflat.”
Doug Underhill, the county commissioner for that area, was a driving force behind the project. Vanosdall said early in the process that he and others invited Underhill to come to see the lake and neighborhood for himself.
The visit didn’t go well.
“We told him we need a project that will protect the neighborhood from flooding and maintain the beauty of the community,” Vanosdall recalled. “And I used the phrase ‘aesthetically pleasing,’ and he said, ‘I don't care about aesthetics.’”
“And that became a specific phrase,” Vanosdall added. “Every time we talked about anything that had to do with appearance, his point was aesthetics don't matter. Safety is what matters. And we're going to protect the people from flooding. We care more about the water in your kitchen than we do about the water in your lake.”
Under pressure from homeowners concerned their homes would flood again, the HOA’s board in 2019 authorized Vanosdall to sign an easement allowing the county to do the work. He did, but it turned out that the community’s rules required a two-thirds vote of all of the homeowners to approve the easement, Vanosdall said.
That required at least 184 of the 275 homeowners to vote for the easement. Letters were sent to all of the homeowners. Many responders voted to approve the easement. But because fewer than 184 responded, the easement fell far short of the two-thirds vote needed, Vanosdall said.
“The project didn't get done, and I would say it is because the homeowner's association – the 275 homeowners – didn’t vote to get it done,” he said.
Still, he doesn’t believe the county’s plan would have worked.
“I believe we still would have had flooding if we had done the project,” Vanosdall said. “And, if you're going to blame somebody, I would much prefer to have done the project and discovered it didn't work and have the blame placed on the county than have the homeowner's association accused.”
Owen, the flooded homeowner, sees it differently.
“They gave away $2 million,” he said. “We would’ve gotten two 60-inch drainage pipes, which might not have protected all the houses, but it would have protected a bunch of them.”
Instead, Owen finds himself looking for a new home – on a hill far from water.