Like most tragedies, this one came as a total surprise. It started in the basement laundry of the Escambia County jail, preceded for hours by the constant patter of raindrops falling on rooftops and asphalt outside. By the time of the disaster, the relentless drumbeat of rain had turned nearby streets into untamed streams.
The jail’s basement began filling with water. Dryers began floating and then ripped free from the natural-gas outlets that powered them. Inmates and workers reported smelling gas, but by then it was too late. The jailhouse exploded and burned, killing two inmates, leaving one jail employee permanently paralyzed and injuring more than 100 others.
The April 2014 incident was caused by a daylong downpour over Escambia and its county seat, Pensacola, situated in the far-western corner of Florida’s panhandle. It led to a $17.5 million class-action settlement for the injured and the families of those who died. Escambia County, which was liable for $5 million of the judgment, is set to open a new $132 million jail in a few months. But to reduce the chances of the area around it flooding again, millions of dollars in stormwater improvements are needed.
Remarkably, the new jailhouse sits right next to the old one, in the same flood-prone area of Escambia County known as the Delano Basin – albeit at an elevation six feet higher than the old jail across the street, which is now a large hole in the ground.
How The Delano Basin Floods Downtown Pensacola
The Delano Basin flooded in 2004, 2014 and this year from Hurricane Sally. What’s worse, runoff from the Delano Basin travels downhill to what’s called the Long Hollow Basin, which includes Pensacola’s bustling downtown entertainment and commercial district, contributing to flooding there, too, on all of those occasions.
So, managing rainwater flooding in downtown Pensacola depends partly on managing flooding upstream in the county’s Delano Basin, which lies outside the city limits.
But six years after the jailhouse explosion, plans for those stormwater projects vital to preventing severe flooding from happening again in the Delano Basin remain on the drawing boards.
With the new jail scheduled to open soon, the county is waiting on a $7 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to begin work on a series of stormwater-improvement projects in the Delano Basin, such as retention ponds, inlets and culverts. FEMA had provided an earlier grant for the design of those projects. The designs have been completed and submitted to both FEMA and the Florida Department of Emergency Management for approval.
“We need the (construction) to happen so we can reduce this repetitive flooding,” Joy Jones, county engineering director, told Flood Trends. “According to its design and modeling, it will reduce flooding by 14 inches in a hundred-year storm,” meaning a storm so severe it has only 1 percent chance of happening in any given year.
While Escambia waited for the grant, Hurricane Sally dropped almost 2 feet of water on parts of the county, including the Delano and Long Hollow basins. It drove a six-to-eight-foot surge in from the Gulf of Mexico that flooded downtown Pensacola and communities along the county’s coastal rivers and inlets. Then came the freshwater flooding caused by the heavy rainfall. Floodwater in the Delano Basin flowed into the Long Hollow Basin and onto downtown Pensacola streets.
With damage assessments still underway two weeks after the hurricane, the county figured it had sustained $308 million in damages from Sally, including $182 million in damage to public property and $126 million to private property. The estimates include wind damage, but flooding is expected to account for most of it. A week later, county spokesperson Kaycee Lagarde told Flood Trends the county estimates another $5 million in seawall damages occurred largely due to the surge. She stressed that the damage figures were preliminary.
Derrik Owens, Pensacola’s public works director, cited numerous stormwater improvements made by the city since 2014 for helping reduce the impact of flooding from the Delano Basin after Sally. Eighteen city stormwater structures that had been blown out in 2014 held this time, he said. He cited a major pond expansion project near the city’s airport that prevented significant property damage in one flood-prone area, Piedmont Road. It had been the site of considerable flood damage to roads and homes in 2014, but not this time.
“I believe that if we would not have done these projects, these neighborhoods would have had significantly more flooding and residential damage than they did have,” he said, adding that the city paid for it partly with $17 million in stormwater grants it has received since 2014.
Owens said the city was surveying high-water marks from Sally around town in an effort to determine how much less stormwater flooding there was this time than 2014, a task that will be complicated by the fact that some areas experienced both surge flooding and rainfall flooding.
After 2014, the county and city changed their building codes to require new development to handle runoff from a 100-year storm rather than a milder 25-year storm. This required all new development to accommodate the tougher standard.
But Owens warned there is no way to eliminate flooding in Long Hollow Basin or downtown Pensacola. Engineering well beyond a 100-year storm isn’t financially practical for most cities and counties, he said.
“Our airport director, after the 2014 flooding, gave us an analogy,” Owens said. “Why would you design Pensacola airport to land a 747 when it’s only going to happen once every 200 years? It's just not feasible or practical.”
Meteorologically speaking, three jumbo jets have landed in Escambia County in the past 15 years – Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the intense rain event of 2014 and Hurricane Sally in 2020.
An increase in the frequency of strong storms puts Escambia, like counties across America, in a race against time. County officials hope the funds for those vital Delano Basin stormwater projects come through soon, ensuring that the inmates and workers in the county’s new jail are spared the dark fate of their predecessors.