DeBary improves storm drainage, but flooding still worries residents

Aug 23, 2011

The following article was published in the Orlando Sentinel on August 23, 2011:

DeBary improves storm drainage, but flooding still worries residents

By Ludmilla Lelis

After Tropical Storm Fay flooded 130 homes in DeBary, the city spent almost $17 million on a new system of pipes and pumps to drain floodwaters during the next big storm.

Yet all those flood-control fixes offer only a small comfort to Vito and Catherine Multari, whose lakefront home was devastated during the 2008 disaster. “We’re anxious because we’re living on borrowed time,” said Vito Multari, who about worries what could happen during the next tropical storm. “If it happens again, we’ll lose everything. Again. And we didn’t hardly save anything from Fay.” The Multaris salvaged only a few possessions before their home was inundated with 4 feet of water.

As Central Florida watched the progress of Hurricane Irene, DeBary City Manager Dan Parrott said the city in southwest Volusia County has built a better drainage system and that it’s better prepared for the next storm.”We’re in pretty good shape, and these projects should help us handle most of the main flooding issues,” Parrott said. “This has taken care of the vast majority of the problems where homes flooded.”

Volusia County Emergency Management Director Charlie Craig said that Irene’s projected track, well east of the Florida coast, offers hope that the area won’t get torrential rains amid high winds this week.

But Parrott acknowledged that the next time DeBary does get another Fay-size rainfall — 800 million gallons of water in 24 hours — there will be flooding.

“If we get another 21 inches of rain in 24 hours, this system won’t be able to keep up,” Parrott said. “We just couldn’t afford to build a system big enough for that much rain.”

A city of more than 19,000, DeBary was built on sandy, low-lying terrain with about 34 lakes, most of which offer no outlets for overflow. The city had only scattered drainage systems, and they proved inadequate three years ago.

Fay made landfall at Key West on Aug. 18, 2008, and dumped torrential rains over seven days, shattering rainfall records in several cities and causing $195 million in damage in Florida.

In DeBary — the hardest-hit city in Central Florida — ponds and lakes overflowed their banks and breached their dikes, overflowing into houses and creating virtual rivers in the streets. The city snaked miles of hoses, connected to emergency pumps at 52 locations, to drain neighborhoods and send water to the St. Johns River.

After the waters receded, one of the priorities was buying the 10 most flood-prone homes, each with a history of flooding problems, and demolishing them. The city now owns the properties so that they can’t be redeveloped.

The city then focused on completing more than 20 flood-control projects, targeting vulnerable areas where water tended to pool and had nowhere to go. Many of those projects were funded through a $10 million bond issue approved by voters.

The largest system built is the complex series of pipes and pumps aimed at alleviating the flooding that overwhelmed the DeBary Golf and Country Club.

That system connects the neighborhood’s lakes with underground pipes, all aimed at draining lakes when they overfill and directing stormwaters into a 4-mile pipe that empties into a large pit at the south end of town.

Several pump stations are set up at key intersections to keep the water moving, and the city is installing emergency generators to keep the pumps working during a storm, Parrott said.

The drainage pit, not far from the St. Johns River, appears to be able to take in huge amounts of water without overflowing, he said.

“We estimate it can take in 400 million gallons of water,” he said. That’s about half the amount that Fay dumped onto the city.

Throughout the rest of DeBary, scattered neighborhoods have new pipes and pumps in place for the next possible flood. The city also has contractors on standby with extra emergency pumps to cope with the next disaster, Parrott said.

However, the city doesn’t have enough money to pay for all the recommended flood-control projects. The $10 million bond issue has been spent, and so has another $7 million from the federal government and a city stormwater fund. Construction on four funded projects has yet to start, and four other projects are on hold.

A citywide system that could deal with a Fay-sized rainfall is exorbitantly expensive, Parrott said. Some estimates have put the cost at more than $50 million.

Kerry Bechir, who rebuilt her Lower Lake Court home after the Fay floods, is wary about whether the city is ready.

“We haven’t had a substantial rain since Fay, so there’s no telling what could happen,” she said. “They tell us everything is ready to go. So we’ll just see.”

But Bechir, who spent more than $300,000 to rebuild, doesn’t plan to hold onto her DeBary home for much longer.

Faced with an additional $3,000 bill for flood insurance, Bechir is planning to sell. The Multaris, who are her neighbors, also rebuilt their home but are uncertain of how much more they can take.

“This is supposed to be our retirement home, but it’s been our horror home,” said Vito Multari. “A lot of us in this neighborhood are very nervous.”

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