ORLANDO, Fla.—Like many homes in central Florida, Janét Buford-Johnson’s is situated on a pond that in better times would be considered picturesque. During Hurricane Ian in September the pond swelled into a horrific torrent, nearly swallowing her and her daughter alive.
Suddenly and violently in the night, powered by Ian’s unrelenting rains, the water rose inside Buford-Johnson’s tidy sand- and cream-colored home to at least three feet deep. As the water rushed in she and her 15-year-old daughter were rescued before dawn by boat.
“It’s traumatizing,” she said. “The water was high enough where, if I fell and I hit my head, I would not be alive and nor would my daughter.”
For Buford-Johnson and other residents of Orlo Vista, a diverse low-income neighborhood west of downtown Orlando, it was the latest flood. The neighborhood also was inundated during Hurricane Irma in 2017, although less severely. Now as residents face the difficult dilemma of what to do about their dilapidated houses, county commissioners have agreed to a $23.6 million project to deepen the pond and two others and also install a new pump station.
The commissioners say when the work is finished in February 2024 the ponds will be able to hold another 90 million gallons of water, providing more flood control for Orlo Vista while also protecting neighborhoods downstream along Shingle Creek, where all the water here ultimately flows on its way south to the Everglades and out to sea. But Buford-Johnson is unconvinced. She especially worries that the work will not be done in time for the next hurricane season.
“I don’t want anybody to go through what we’ve been through here—twice in five years,” she said. “It’s going to happen again. It’s just a matter of time.”
Across the region, central Floridians are facing a long recovery from a historic 2022 hurricane season that wielded a one-two punch here. Hurricane Ian, after flattening swaths of southwest Florida, left widespread flooding across the state’s interior, causing nearly $113 billion in damage and 152 deaths. The hurricane ranks as the third-costliest in U.S. history after Katrina in 2005 and Harvey in 2017, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Hurricane Nicole followed only a few weeks later, dropping even more rain and inundating areas that Ian had spared. Together the hurricanes are responsible for rainfall amounts not seen here in hundreds of years, if not longer, experts say. In some places it would be months before the waters would recede. The National Flood Insurance Program has paid more than $2.3 billion toward claims associated with Ian and $13.2 million toward those associated with Nicole.
Now as central Floridians begin to rebuild many are wondering whether the unprecedented flooding represents a new normal in a changing world. One preliminary study concluded that human-induced climate change increased Hurricane Ian’s rainfall rates by more than 10 percent, according to researchers at Stony Brook University and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Florida’s flood control was not designed for today’s more damaging hurricanes or the state’s booming population, which has grown by 13 percent during the past decade to 22 million.
“There is very little effective flood control in central Florida, and with as flat as the landscape typically is and as expensive and environmentally costly as it is to dig canals, the likelihood is there’s not going to be an engineered sense of ditches and dikes and pumps and other mechanisms that are going to drain the water off the land,” said Charles Lee, director of advocacy at Audubon Florida who has worked on behalf of the state’s environment for some 50 years. “Instead we are going to have to accept the land for what it is and build around it.”
Filling in the Wetlands
Buford-Johnson’s plight in Orlo Vista is perhaps unsurprising considering Florida’s history predominately as wetlands. Water is intrinsic to Florida. The state is a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay. Florida’s springs to the north are some of the most majestic in the world. The Everglades begin in central Florida with Shingle Creek, which flows into a watershed that encompasses much of the peninsula and includes the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee and storied river of grass. To the east of Shingle Creek the St. Johns River, Florida’s longest river, courses north to Jacksonville and out to sea.
“Wetlands were a signature of Florida, and you didn’t have to be in the middle of a cypress swamp to be in a wetland,” Lee said. “Central Florida was pockmarked with a large number of very shallow wet prairie situations that gradually were used for agriculture, when the farmers that converted them into agriculture built marginal drainage ditches.”
Historically these wetlands would have served as natural sponges, absorbing Ian’s and Nicole’s monumental rains while their trees, shrubs and other vegetation helped disperse the floodwaters. Instead a lot of these wetlands were filled in during the past century for Florida’s explosive growth and development. Most notably the Everglades were drained to a fraction of their size through a vast system of canals, levees, water control structures and pump stations that together represent some of the most complex water management infrastructure in the world.
Today Florida’s waters are overseen by the state Department of Environmental Protection and five water management districts, three of which converge in central Florida: The St. Johns River Water Management District is responsible for much of the northern half of the region, and the South Florida Water Management District is focused on the southern part. The Southwest Florida Water Management District’s territory includes Sumter and parts of Lake and Marion counties.
The South Florida Water Management District and St. Johns River Water Management District are faced with two starkly different situations. The south Florida district oversees the Everglades’ massive water management infrastructure, which also was designed for flood control after a hurricane in the 1920s caused Lake Okeechobee to flood, killing thousands of people.
The river of grass now is the subject of a multi-billion-dollar restoration aimed in large part at recapturing its water and revitalizing the ailing watershed. Sean Cooley, the district’s spokesman, points out that while hurricanes are projected to become rainier as temperatures warm, Ian’s rainfall levels had not been documented here in hundreds of years at least and are unlikely to occur again in the near future. Nonetheless, the district and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are re-examining the system to look for improvements.
By contrast, the St. Johns River Water Management District oversees a system in the upper basin of spillways, pump stations, levees and canals that can be used to influence water levels and enhance flood control. But the system is much smaller than that in south Florida, and the upper basin is the only area where the district has any control over water levels, said Mike Register, the district’s executive director.
Instead the district relies more on the natural function of floodplains. He said Floridians like to live near the water, and that puts them in harm’s way.
“We focus on trying to acquire as much of that floodplain as possible so that when the (St. Johns River) does come up,” he said, “it is able to go into these natural areas and spread out like it was designed to do and not move into neighborhoods and into people’s homes.”
A Losing Battle?
Downstream from Orlo Vista, not far from Shingle Creek in Kissimmee, the floodwaters during Hurricane Ian reached four feet in Sherwood Forest, another diverse low-income neighborhood. Some 300 homes were affected, and most of the residents were monolingual Spanish speakers who struggled to access help. It was about a week before the water receded.
“I was here like a little over two weeks without electricity and services, you know? So I couldn’t get out of the house. Thank God and the people that came and distribute water and food,” said Gonzalez Antron, whose manufactured home is elevated, sparing the interior. “I’m surprised that they allowed all these houses to be put here.”
Florida’s treasured and troubled waters have been a priority for Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential front-runner for the GOP nomination in the 2024 presidential race, but much of his policy has focused not on flood concerns but water quality and addressing problems like ongoing toxic algae blooms that have sickened Floridians and left wildlife belly-up. His latest action was an executive order signed in January, shortly after his re-election in November, that among other things put $3.5 billion toward Everglades restoration and other water quality projects and also was aimed at improving hurricane recovery and local planning to encourage sustainable growth.
The order also was designed to ensure continued funding for the governor’s Resilient Florida program, which has dedicated $1 billion toward local vulnerability assessments, resilience planning and projects like elevating roads and improving drainage. A large part of the funding comes from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The program is intended for coastal and inland communities, although the vast majority of the funds have gone to coastal communities, said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters.
The funding is important, but over time hardening the state’s infrastructure will represent little more than a losing battle against the hotter temperatures, rising seas and more damaging hurricanes of climate change, said Lee of Audubon Florida. He said it likely will fall to local governments to make difficult decisions about areas where a mounting number of disasters, insurance payouts and rebuilding costs will become too much. In New Smyrna Beach, city commissioners voted unanimously in January to pause new residential development for six months while they examine hurricane impacts, a remarkable step in Florida where the economy is based in large part on growth and development and developers are powerful political players.
“People very much want to rebuild that house, and if they’ve got an insurance payment that will let them rebuild that house the chances are pretty high that’s what they’re going to do,” Lee said. “If we were smart in central Florida what we would do is get out that map of the flooded areas that occurred during the past two storms, and we would mark those areas off. And then we would create a program that would allow people to pool government assistance funds with their insurance payouts and simply not rebuild in that location.”
A House That Smells Like Fish
In Orlo Vista, one of the things Buford-Johnson misses most about her home is the smell.
She inherited the three-bedroom, 1,100-square-foot home after her mother’s death and raised four children there. Sometimes she felt as though she still could smell her mother there.
After Hurricane Ian, Buford-Johnson spent two months gutting the house, with help from volunteers. At this point the interior is stripped nearly bare, walls and all, but there still is a lot more work to do. She has received a little assistance from her insurance company and FEMA but not enough, she said. She and her youngest daughter have been staying with her grown son.
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“The worst part of gutting the house was just realizing that we could have been gone that same day, you know, when we started seeing the water coming into the house,” she said. “Everything’s going to have to go and start over.”
She is ambivalent about her future. She feels a lot of grief about leaving the house but fearful about moving back only to be flooded again. She is leaning toward repairing and selling it.
“I know if my mom was alive she would tell me to just leave. Don’t even bother to come back here,” she said. “This house is not my house. This is just a shell of what it used to be. … I walk in here and smell fish and mold. Smells like I am out by the river.”