The city that never drains
A weak hurricane could drown Jacksonville.
Will its leaders protect it in time?
William Andralliski followed Hurricane Matthew here last fall, chasing construction work. He found a job repairing the damage the storm left behind. He met a woman in the city, and they made a life together.
Less than a year later, another hurricane swept that life away.
Hurricane Irma forced flood waters under the door of the 28-year-old’s tiny apartment. Andralliski, his girlfriend and her mother fled for the nearest shelter, running from the water pooling in his living room carpet.
Now they own little more than their phones and the clothes they were wearing. Their apartment is condemned.
Irma did all of that despite skirting Jacksonville, its eye passing more than 70 miles away. By then it was a tropical storm, its winds half the speed they were when it made landfall on the other end of Florida as a ferocious hurricane. Yet flood waters here were so high they lapped at the light switches in Andralliski’s apartment.
Gov. Rick Scott was surprised by the damage. “I don’t think many people thought they'd get all the flooding that they got,” he said.
But the way Irma’s waters surged into Jacksonville and sat in some neighborhoods for days was no fluke.
It was proof of something local officials have known for years:
In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma last month, Tampa Bay Times reporters traveled to Jacksonville to see the resulting damage firsthand, reviewed hundreds of pages of public documents and historical records, and interviewed current and former city leaders along with scientists, engineers and historians.
They found that local leaders let key plans to fix the region’s flooding stall, despite alarming reports about the extent of the risk.
“Duval County is risking significant loss of life and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and business disruption for a category 2 or 3 hurricane,” a group of regional emergency preparedness officials warned in 2010.
In 2013, a Duval County report showed that a Category 3 hurricane could create a 20-foot storm surge along the St. Johns River. Even a Category 1 storm could bring 6 feet.
But in 2015, records show, more than half of all active projects aimed at making the region more able to survive a storm were unfunded.
Most of the projects that were completed in the past five years have been small in scale, the Times found. Few had estimated costs of more than $750,000. Former city officials say the city would need to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to fix decades-old problems with drainage.
Those issues are most severe in the impoverished, mostly black neighborhoods near the polluted waterways tied to the St. Johns — communities filled with vulnerable populations that would struggle to recover after a major disaster. Community leaders say the fight for money to fix flooding has spanned generations.
said John Delaney, Jacksonville’s mayor from 1995 to 2003.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and his top administrators did not respond to interview requests. “Mayor Curry has demonstrated his commitment to safer and vibrant neighborhoods throughout Jacksonville,” a spokeswoman wrote in a statement.
City Council president Anna Brosche said she’s heard some concerns about flooding but needed to investigate.
Council member John Crescimbeni said there is little the city can do to help neighborhoods where drainage is old, inadequate or missing. “We don’t want to allocate $30 million from the pot to a project that has little to no likelihood of moving forward in upcoming years, because that doesn’t do anyone any good,” he said.
Some of the deadliest U.S. natural disasters in recent memory came when hurricanes hit flood-prone cities, like Katrina in New Orleans and Harvey in Houston. In 2014, a study of 50 years of hurricane fatalities found that about 90 percent of victims died from water, not wind. Most drowned.
The first and last time Jacksonville was hit head on by a storm at hurricane strength was Hurricane Dora on Sept. 10, 1964, 53 years before Irma flooded the city.
There have been close calls. Last year, the National Weather Service warned that Hurricane Matthew could strike Jacksonville as a Category 4 storm, which would be “unlike any hurricane in the modern era.” At the last second, it steered away. Some early storm tracks also showed Hurricane Irma crossing Jacksonville as a Category 5 storm with 175 mile per hour winds. It ultimately swerved toward Florida’s west coast.
For Jacksonville to go so long without a large storm, “that’s just chance,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Kerry Emanuel, who specializes in hurricane physics.
At the Times’ request, Emanuel used an algorithm to simulate 16 million potential Atlantic hurricanes, then calculated the odds that one would graze Jacksonville.
Every year, there’s a 1 in 14 chance that a Category 2 storm or higher will come within 95 miles of the city, he found.
The area we now call Jacksonville was wetlands for thousands of years.
The St. Johns River sprawls across northeast Florida, collecting water from one-sixth of the land in the state. Then it dumps into the Atlantic in Jacksonville.
The river is wide and shallow — so flat that it often doesn’t appear to be moving at all. It can take 3 to 4 months for water to reach the ocean.
When it does, the river’s current is far weaker than the ocean’s tide. Every high tide, ocean water forces into the river’s mouth and miles upstream. The water in the river becomes trapped until low tide, as though by a dam, said Don Resio, director of the University of North Florida’s Taylor Engineering Research Institute in Jacksonville.
That makes a hurricane especially dangerous, Resio said. Its rains can raise the river’s level by several feet — but during high tide, the water has nowhere to go.
That effect is even worse during a nor’easter, strong Atlantic winds that are common during hurricane season. The winds trap water in the river, too. But unlike high tide, it can last for days.
The St. Johns sloshes back and forth with the wind as it waits to drain. Rainfall on the swollen river spills over its banks. A hurricane blowing in from the south can easily scoop the river water into the city.
“Everyone looks to the coasts or the beaches as hotbeds for flooding during storms like Irma,” Resio said.
In 1964, Hurricane Dora hit as a Category 2 during an unusually high tide with a strong wind offshore. It dropped only 6 inches of rain on the city. But it caused four feet of flooding and the equivalent of more than $2 billion in damage today.
This pattern — strong winds, high tide and extra rain — led to damaging flooding in 41 of at least 100 recorded storms in Jacksonville since 1794, according to a Times analysis of hundreds of pages of historical diary entries, weather reports, newspaper articles and scientific journals.
Two centuries of development replacing the wetlands along the river’s mouth has only made the flooding worse.
“When you look at the location of Jacksonville, you say, ‘Why? Why would a city want to build here?’ ” said Emily Lisska, executive director of the Jacksonville Historical Society. “But we had made our living out of the shipping industry.”
Today, about two city blocks sit on a pier-like structure atop the river itself. Over the years, sections of those streets have repeatedly caved in, most recently in 2015.
That year, county emergency managers estimated a 73.8 percent chance that a future flood could lead to injuries, deaths or property damage, records show.
Lisska has learned to track the tidal cycles for her commute. During low tide, she can shave about two minutes off her drive by cutting through a wide alley street. If it’s high tide, she goes around; the alley is inevitably underwater.
In some parking lots, built over the water,
Jacksonville officials know the area is ill-equipped to handle a hurricane.
The area’s Local Mitigation Strategy, a report made every five years, ranks the county’s risks from potential disasters. The top three hazards in the 2015 report are wind, storm surge and flooding — all side effects of a hurricane.
Strong winds would rip up trees and send wood flying “even following a strong tropical storm or weak hurricane,” the report warns. Along the water, storm surge would act as a “bulldozer clearing everything in its path,” turning the debris it picks up along the way into battering rams.
Flooding would be amplified by the geography of the St. Johns. It would damage property, block roads and slow evacuations, especially around coastal and low-lying communities.
Despite this, the report shows virtually no progress since 2010.
Jacksonville added some shelters but remains “shelter-deficient.” The local utility buried some electrical lines. The city elevated or bought out about 20 flood-prone homes and one popular seafood restaurant. And Atlantic Beach’s drainage system was replaced, but the project relied heavily on federal money.
More than half of the 98 initiatives listed as “in progress” had insufficient funding or no funding source at all. Some were added that same year. But more had also been listed in the same report five years earlier.
Most of the large-scale projects to fix storm and flooding issues that communities have dealt with for decades cost tens of millions of dollars and were left unfunded.
The report says the 2008 economic downturn forced projects to be “deferred or discontinued.”
But that year, Jacksonville started a stormwater fund that collects more than $20 million annually, paid for by a fee on homeowners. Officials did not track how the money was spent for the first five years, they acknowledge. They started auditing the fund in 2014 after the city council raised questions about whether the money was being spent on relevant projects.
In 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation-supported nonprofit 100 Resilient Cities selected Jacksonville to receive a $1 million grant to identify and protect itself from possible hazards, like hurricanes or severe storms. Jacksonville abandoned the program after the administration and the city council deadlocked over which official should lead the effort and how much it would cost.
The city never got a dime.
Creeks spider out from the St. Johns. Many of the city’s poor, mostly black neighborhoods lie to the north of the river along a handful of them: McCoys, Hogans and Moncrief.
There, it doesn’t take a hurricane to cause extreme flooding. A new moon and a simple downpour can do the trick.
Warren Jones, a former city council member, grew up in the 1950s playing Sunday football at the edge of McCoys Creek.
Back then the creek was used as a dump. It wasn’t unusual to see human feces and noxious ash floating in the water. Every time the local chicken processing plant dumped waste into the creek, the waters would turn red with animal blood; elementary schoolers would chase the chicken feathers floating out of the street gutters and manholes.
When Jones first joined the city council, he thought it would be easy to fix the creek. The pushback from city officials was almost immediate.
“The first thing they told me would have been like that: ‘Those people knew, when they moved over there, they’d have flooding. So what’s the big deal?’ ” Jones said.
He would wind up spending 28 years on the council — from 1979 to 1999 and 2007 to 2015 — fighting for the funds.
Jones was able to get a few ponds built to slow downstream flooding, but never managed to get a more significant fix because of political and procedural roadblocks.
As of 2016, McCoys Creek is still on the list of places that need drainage fixes. The $20 million project is marked: “Insufficient funding.”
In the years since Jones was elected, Jacksonville launched ambitious plans for new construction, taking on billions of dollars in debt. In bond money alone, the city spent $105 million to repave streets; $95 million for a new library; $211 million for a new courthouse. It spent $60 million on the Everbank Field NFL stadium, and $34 million for a stadium for the minor league baseball team. It spent $10 million in bonds on a rare cat exhibit at the local zoo.
Two bonds, proposed by then-mayor Delaney in 1997 and 2001, financed 33 drainage projects throughout Jacksonville. Three-fourths of them were completed in white communities. At least 20 black neighborhoods still have flooding problems, Jones said.
There’s a history of neglect by city leaders when it comes to fixing infrastructure in Jacksonville’s black communities, said James B. Crooks, a former historian in residence for the city of Jacksonville.
Brosche, the city council president, said she recently put more council members from black communities on the city’s Finance Committee and appointed the committee’s first-ever black chairman to ensure all neighborhoods were well represented. “I want all areas of Jacksonville to benefit,” Brosche said.
Crescimbeni, the city council member, said there just isn’t enough money to make most projects worth it.
But one neighborhood that did get funding illustrates the big difference those projects can make.
In September 1989, a rainstorm caused such bad flooding that two people died. Jones and two other council members walked out of a city council meeting to protest the lack of drainage improvements in the black neighborhoods.
The ordeal triggered citywide protests. It paved the way for one neighborhood to be fixed: Grand Park.
Back then, Grand Park flooded so badly residents often needed boats to get to their homes. Postal trucks would sputter out in the water; mail would be delayed for weeks.
More than 150 residents confronted Mayor Tommy Hazouri at a community meeting. He pledged to fix the problem. The work started in 1989 and ended in 2003. It cost at least $48 million.
Now Grand Park has underground drainage and working curbs and gutters. It almost never floods, said Lloyd Washington, president of the local neighborhood association.
But change continues to escape McCoys Creek. The culprit is decades of pollution, which has to be dealt with first, said Delaney, the former mayor.
“The fear is it’s kind of a black hole in terms of how much it’s going to cost to clean those things up. Those could be $60 million to $100 million dollar projects,” Delaney said.
Randy Linder isn’t waiting.
Linder has lived on Thomas Street along the banks of McCoys Creek his entire life. When his family moved into his mother’s house at the bottom of a hill, two lots away from the creek, the 62-year-old plumber knew what could happen. “The flooding has been terrible here ever since I can remember,” he said.
So Linder started digging, dumping dirt around his property like a makeshift sand dune. Some days he digs from the lot next door, which has been empty since the home on it was condemned after flooding one too many times. Some days he digs from the lot by the creek, where a battered wood-frame house has long sat empty, abandoned by families that quickly moved out in the rainy season.
He moved in more than a decade ago.
He’s still not done.
On Sept. 10, it looked like Jacksonville would get lucky again.
The city was well outside Hurricane Irma’s “cone of uncertainty.” Hurricane shelters remained empty, barely reaching 20 percent capacity.
By that night, Irma had traveled up Florida’s Gulf Coast and weakened to just a tropical storm. But then its outer bands collided with a nor’easter. Three unusually high tides surged into the St. Johns. The water was trapped, as though by a dam, sloshing back and forth. It crept higher as the rain kept coming.
Irma was already leaving town the next morning when the river set a new record, surpassing its height during Hurricane Dora. That was during low tide. By noon, high tide came in, and downtown Jacksonville was under 6 feet of water — the level of flooding you’d expect from a Category 3 hurricane. Water was trapped in the river for days.
Across the city, 356 people were stranded.
Downtown, by City Hall, the water receded in hours. In Andralliski’s apartment, it sat all day.
Three days later, parts of McCoys Creek remained flooded. But Linder’s barricade worked. “It hasn’t gotten in my house, not yet,” he said.
In Grand Park, only one street held water. It drained in 30 minutes.