County Learns From Tropical Storm Isaac

“Lessons from Isaac Flooding” was the topic at County Commissioner Jess Santamaria’s community forum meeting Wednesday at the original Wellington Mall.

Speakers included Deputy County Administrator Brad Merriman, who said the county’s level of cooperation with municipalities and water management districts was unparalleled.

Parts of Palm Beach County received more than 18 inches of rain during the storm, although Isaac’s eye was about 400 miles to the west.

When the rain was over, Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue officials did a rapid assessment by drawing a grid of the western communities where the flooding was worst. They immediately conducted a damage assessment and made reverse 911 calls to flooded areas, leaving messages for people to call the Emergency Operations Center if they had damage.

The Red Cross and the Salvation Army provided food and supplies to people, animals and pets, and Gov. Rick Scott visited the Wednesday after the storm, pledging help from the state. The county had mini-emergency operations centers set up at the Royal Palm Beach fire-rescue station and the Acreage library.

Using more than 85 high-clearance vehicles with the assistance of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, the county conducted a complete search covering 146 square miles in 36 hours. Water trucks were made available, and a contractor was hired to dispose of fish carcasses.

Merriman said that the Emergency Operations Center received more than 4,000 calls. However, he was pleased that only 66 people had to be sheltered, which he said is a small number compared with how many seek shelter during hurricanes.

Merriman said what he has learned is that major rain events need the same type of planning as a hurricane. “Have a plan, build a kit, be informed,” he said. “We don’t often think about flooding; we think about the wind.”

According to Merriman, Isaac demonstrates the idiosyncrasy of each storm. “We got more water from Isaac than any of the single hurricanes in 2004 or 2005,” he said.

He said good communication is critical, including interagency communication and enhanced communication with the public. “We also learned not to trust the weather forecasts,” Merriman added, pointing out that meteorologists predicted 4 to 8 inches of rain. “Another thing, we never expected fish kills.”

A comprehensive meeting is being planned in October for a more thorough review of what can be done better, and on Oct. 30, county staff will give a presentation to the Palm Beach County Commission, which will be aired on Channel 20.

Pam Mac’Kie of the South Florida Water Management District said there has been a lot of discussion about what could have been done. “I’m going to focus on the lessons learned and try to make it work better in the future,” she said.

She described the regional drainage system as a three-tier system, with the primary tier run by the SFWMD. The second tier is made up of the canals and water catchment areas maintained by local government and special districts. “The tertiary system is your neighborhood — the culvert under your driveway and the swale in your front yard,” she said. “All three of these have to be working well. Ours is a very big and complicated system.”

People should understand what to expect from the flood control system, Mac’Kie said. Based on engineering design, if there is 4 to 6 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, people should expect roads to remain passable but with some ponding. With 7 to 10 inches in 72 hours, the roads will not be flooded but the swales and ditches will be full.

“With 10 to 20 inches of rain in 72 hours, you can anticipate water in some buildings,” Mac’Kie said. “You got 18 in 72 hours, but it was more like 18 or 24 hours. To the extent that we did not have a lot of water in buildings, we fared better than expected.”

She pointed out that Hurricane Irene in 1999 dumped almost 10 inches in the area. Isaac dropped an average of 12 inches, but Irene had more flooding than Isaac. This is due to an improved drainage system, she said, adding that different agencies were working together, lending other agencies what they had left of their drainage capacity if they could.

The SFWMD also took some measures that are not normally allowed, such as opening up discharge to the C-51 Canal, discharging both to tide and to Lake Okeechobee, and using the western rock pits. A total of 88.1 billion gallons of water went through the system in the county, she said.

So much water was discharged into Lake Okeechobee that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers became concerned about the levee and started discharging water from the lake to tide east and west.

The SFWMD also installed emergency pumps to speed up the drainage. “Temporary pumps are complicated setups,” she said. “Men worked through the night to discharge water and get it out of the communities.”

She said individuals can help by looking at how their neighborhood can improve drainage and asking their local associations what obstructions may be impeding the flow of stormwater.

Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Linda King, who works at the 60,000-acre J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area, said she was impressed with how well people were working together.

She said Corbett has a lot of swamp buggies and was outfitted to patrol the area despite the high waters. On Monday, when the rain started coming down, they started monitoring the internal roads, which were washing out, and they put down more rock to fill them back in.

She said most of the water in Corbett goes west, but there is one southeast corner abutting The Acreage where they were most concerned because of the proximity to people’s homes.

One of the most significant things they accomplished during the storm was to construct a weir to allow stormwater to flow across Seminole Pratt Whitney Road onto the Mecca Farms property with cooperation from the county, King said. “The water tells you where it is going to flow,” she said. “We learned how to push the water more to the west than the southeast. We also worked to create more flow ways to alleviate pressure building on the southeast corner.”

King said they are also working on permits to reinforce the berm on the southeast side. “It did not break, but it needs to be strengthened,” she said.

Mac’Kie estimated that it will take roughly $6 million to fortify the Corbett berm.

Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District Administrator Clete Saunier said he has been with the district for 15 years and it never ceases to amaze him how resilient Loxahatchee Groves residents are.

“When our staff goes out to respond to a tree fallen in the road, they get there and it has been cut up into pieces and set at the side of the road by a resident,” he said. “This incident was no different.”

An evaluation of the aftermath found that although the Groves’ drainage system is well-maintained, some properties had not been maintained. Drainage was particularly poor on vacant land and in foreclosed properties, he said.

Saunier said that people who purchase property in a flood plain should have to sign an agreement of understanding. “I know when you close on a property in an airport corridor, you have to understand that noise will be a regular event,” he said. “By the same token, people should be made to sign a document indicating they are aware they are in a flood-prone area.”