Flooded, but left high and dry
Article Courtesy of the Sarasota Herald Tribune

Posted 08 - 25 - 2003

SARASOTA COUNTY -- After the levee separating the Myakka River from the Hidden River subdivision gave way during heavy rains in June, residents expected various government agencies to help with the $2.4 million cleanup.

But on Wednesday, they learned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is offering only to build a temporary levee wall and help pump some standing water from the area.

The decision infuriated the residents, and left them to pay the remaining $2 million cost of the cleanup, which involves scooping tons of muck, trees and garbage from the neighborhood's drainage canals. 

"It's just very depressing, and very discouraging," said Doug Fraley, president of the Hidden River homeowners association. "We'll contest that decision. It's an uphill battle from here."

Thirty-three homes in Hidden River sustained major damage when up to 20 inches of rain fell over a few days in June. The storm also destroyed 10 homes in North Port, and damaged several others east of Venice on the Myakka.
Soon after, President Bush declared seven Central and Southwest Florida counties -- among them Charlotte, 

Hidden River resident Larry Perkel takes his dogs for a wade near his home. A broken levee has left the community at the mercy of the Myakka.
Manatee and Sarasota -- eligible for federal grants to help pay for damage from the flooding. 

But those grants cover only repairs to public infrastructure. The Hidden River neighborhood owns the levee, and it has prided itself on its private, off-limits roads.

FEMA's decision means the agency will pay 75 percent of the cost to drive a wedge of sheet metal 150 feet along the Myakka River side of the levee, and to pump water out of houses. The state and Hidden River's residents will split the rest of the cost.

But Fraley said the dike needs to be repaired by driving a second wedge of sheet metal into the ground on the private side of the levee facing the homes, draining water between the two metal wedges, then repairing the levee with packed dirt. 

After that, all the water will have to be pumped back into the Myakka River and the drainage canals cleaned out.

Hidden River has 60 days to appeal the FEMA decision, then FEMA has 45 days to respond.

Ken Mears, who lives just to the south of where the levee gave way, was livid when told of FEMA's plans.

"That sure sounds like a sick deal," said Mears, a resident of the 4500 block of Hidden River Road. "Here they come in and look at us with 6 feet of water in the houses and it turns out we didn't need them at all." 

In the meantime, the disaster declaration means that residents can take advantage of low-interest loans provided through the Small Business Administration. The nonprofit homeowners association can borrow $1.5 million to clean up the roads and canals, and flooded-out residents can borrow an additional $200,000 each to repair their homes.

But that's not good enough for Fraley and Hidden River's other residents, who feel that since they pay county taxes the county should step in to help with the cleanup. 

They also contend that the county should help because the tree limbs and muck that have fouled their neighborhood came from properties upriver.

"The issue is what are people paying taxes for if they are not going to get help," Fraley said. "When we are dealing with life and property, let's not make it difficult."

Hidden River is in Sarasota County Commissioner Paul Mercier's district. He said the county is doing everything it can to help.

"I don't think you'll see us writing checks," Mercier said. "But we can provide them with resources like temporary dump sites they can bring the stuff to, or extra trash bins." 

Mercier equated the flood debris with red tide. The county will clean up the smelly fish carcasses from public land, but private landowners must do it themselves. Gregg Feagans, director of Sarasota County's Emergency Management Office, agreed that the county doesn't clean up private land.

"It's their responsibility," he said. "They've elected to operate in that community in their own way."

Feagans said the county has already hauled more than 150 truckloads of debris from Hidden River, coordinated volunteer help, and served as a liaison for the homeowners association with the state and federal governments. 

"Doug Fraley is doing a wonderful job and I have tremendous respect for him," Feagans said. "But financing and constructing private infrastructure is the responsibility of the homeowners association."

A second round of torrential rains fell on Southwest Florida over the last several days, dumping as much as 7 inches of rain. That means flood waters are once again rising on the streets of Hidden River.

"The river's back up. It's back over our roads again," Fraley said. "It's up back into one of the houses, which is very depressing." 

The effects of the recent rain was also felt in other places throughout Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties.

In Manatee County on Wednesday, the Red Cross was helping to move some residents of Woodwinds Apartments, off 15th Street East in Bradenton. Seven of the building's 35 units were destroyed, said Laurie Feagans, Manatee County's emergency management chief.

Manatee County officials tallied a total of 21 homes that flooded; they had 4 inches or less of water inside them. 

Bradenton Public Works Director John Cummings said new potholes were the city's biggest problem related to flooding.

Officials in North Port and Venice say that while there has been some street flooding, no buildings have been damaged. Most of the street flooding has been in North Port Estates and along Lacey and Lady Slipper streets off Sumter Boulevard.

The Myakkahatchee Creek is expected to crest late today, but unless more rain falls, officials expect it to stay within its banks. Unfortunately, a tropical wave is forecast to bring rain to Southwest Florida today. 

Al King, Venice's storm-water supervisor, said he's had no reports of rainwater flooding any structures in the city. Drainage ditches are near capacity but no streets are closed.

"The majority of the city, as far as I know, is in pretty good shape," King said.

In low-lying Charlotte County, which is more prone to flooding from tidal surges than from excessive rainfall alone, flooding has not been a problem near rivers. But Wayne Sallade, the county's emergency management director, said the county still has a lot of standing water.