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Water safety, building damage, storm debris among chief concerns in Greater Oviedo and Winter Springs

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As the flooding from Hurricane Ian recedes, local residents face water safety concerns, structural damage to public buildings and private homes, and storm debris towering along roadways. Now a week after the “500-year storm” brought nearly 2 feet of rainfall to the area, some parts of east Seminole County remain underwater, with roads impassable and homes immersed in the murky water of swollen lakes and rivers.

While each neighborhood differed in their post-hurricane woes and needs, a common theme emerged throughout Greater Oviedo and Winter Springs: neighbors helping neighbors. 

“There’s going to be some recovery time on city facilities and city residents, but watching neighbors helping neighbors and everybody jumping in, it was amazing. It just goes to show how strong of a city we have and how strong of leadership we have,” Oviedo City Manager Bryan Cobb said while providing a post-hurricane report to the city council on Monday night. 

Chuluota 

Leslie Kebschull and her chihuahua Sadie spent the days after Hurricane Ian roared through rural Chuluota riding around in her golf cart checking on neighbors, bringing people food and helping people round up storm debris. 

In heavily wooded Chuluota, there was a lot of debris. 

Kebschull said many of the alleyways behind the community’s homes were overgrown, causing power outages when those trees and vegetation slammed into nearby utility poles. 

“It was sparking like crazy out there, one transformer after another. If it hadn’t been raining, there would have been a fire,” she said. 

Leslie Kebschull and her chihuahua Sadie check on neighbors in Chuluota. Photo by Megan Stokes.

The retired Seminole County school bus driver said that most of her neighbors have their power back on but they’re getting impatient waiting for the debris to be collected. 

Trina Kennedy, who also lives in Chuluota, agreed, gesturing to a massive pile of logs and branches that used to be a sprawling tree in her front yard. 

She said the people there take care of one another, adding that several of her neighbors used her shower while their power was out. 

Trina Kennedy’s 2-year-old daughter Cypress stands next to their massive storm debris pile in Chuluota. Photo by Megan Stokes.

Seminole County’s website says that storm debris collection was expected to start mid-week and asked that residents “be patient” as the county’s Solid Waste Management department works to contract with vendors who are also being courted by municipalities statewide. 

The county’s site reminds residents that debris collection took six weeks after Hurricane Irma hit the area in 2017. 

For debris collection and safety tips, click here. The county landfill is currently open during its regular hours. 

Oviedo

More than 350 volunteers from Oviedo showed up over the weekend to fill and deliver sandbags, haul cases of water and clean up debris. After cleaning up the grounds around Oviedo City Hall on Sunday, the group ate pizza on the veranda. 

“Residents were coming in constantly, asking to volunteer to fill and deliver sandbags. The whole community came together to help where help was needed,” Public Works Engineer Alexis Stewart told the Oviedo City Council at a meeting Monday night.

Volunteers help clean up Oviedo. Photo courtesy of the City of Oviedo.

As the Econlockhatchee River, which is normally 5-7 feet deep, crested at 21 feet, Stewart said the public works staff put an existing emergency plan into place and never left the water treatment plant unmanned. She said water service was never interrupted. 

“The public works staff didn’t go home for five days,” Oviedo Mayor Megan Sladek said. “People were working overnight, doing everything they could as the river rose. They’re dead-tired.”

Oviedo Deputy Mayor Bob Pollack asked Fire Chief Mike Woodward if the city should expect the waters to rise as a result of flooding elsewhere. 

“No sir. There were a lot of rumors on social media about Orange County opening flood gates and reintroducing stormwater into our community and the rivers. That was all a rumor. Orange County, just like us, were open and flowing stormwater just as they should,” he said. 

“The stormwater system in Oviedo works. It’s just not designed to take 16-20 inches of rain in 24 hours.” 

Woodward credited the city staff for starting preparations for the storm several days in advance. 

“Closer to the impact of the storm, all operating departments determined a staffing level that we could sequester to ride the storm out and continue to provide city services throughout the storm,” he said.

Woodward said employees from city departments, including recreation and parks, public works, fleet maintenance, police, fire, and other support services, manned Oviedo’s Emergency Management Center, which was activated during the worst of the storm.

He said the team “worked tirelessly, pretty much around the clock, throughout this event until the storm passed through us.” 

“We did what we had to do to ensure the citizens received the service that they deserve,” he said. 

Rescue workers take charge 

Oviedo public safety departments, Seminole County’s fire department and sheriff’s department and the National Guard evacuated more than 70 citizens and 36 pets from 28 homes. From last Wednesday until Monday, the fire department had 305 calls for service. No injuries were reported in the city. 

Woordward said the communities that were most significantly impacted by the storm were Ekana, Emerald Green, and Oviedo Forest. 

Parts of the city were transformed in order to save and serve Oviedo residents. 

The Twin Rivers Golf Course was turned into a temporary fire station, which National Guard members used to pull evacuees out of the Twin Rivers community. Cobb said golf course employees cooked for public safety employees as they worked.  

Most Precious Blood Catholic Church turned into a mobile command center for the police, fire and sheriff’s departments. It also served as an evacuee center.

“It didn’t matter what your field was, you jumped in and did what needed to be done. It was amazing. It was great,” Cobb said.

Riverside Park damage considerable 

Most of Oviedo’s public parks are open with the exception of Riverwoods and Riverside Park. Riverwoods sustained erosion damage at its entrance that must be repaired before reopening, and Riverside Park sustained such considerable damage from the storm that city staff could not estimate a reopening date. 

According to Recreation and Parks Department Director Paul Belden, water rose 2 feet within the Riverside Community Center, which was supposed to begin offering senior programming on Oct. 1. Belden said the damage to the wooden racquetball court was so significant that the entire floor bowed upward. 

The city’s crews are currently rehabilitating the Riverside tennis courts and skate park and staff said those could reopen this week. 

Damage at other city parks includes fence damage at Shane Kelly Park; total destruction of the basketball court shade at Round Lake Park; a closed boardwalk at Sweetwater Park due to heavy debris; and a missing shade structure at Center Lake Park after the storm carried it away. 

Watch the full Oviedo City Council meeting

Winter Springs

“The effects of this storm, they’re not over,” Winter Springs Mayor Kevin McCann said Monday during a Winter Springs City Commission special meeting concerning the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. “We’re not through this yet.”

As water continued to rise near Winter Springs and flooding moved between areas, engineers, city commissioners and consultants talked about how the city can handle the “unprecedented” floodwaters that it continues to deal with.

For Commissioners the talk was about effects that highlighted storm water management as a regional issue. Residents along the west end of Winter Springs found themselves battling the normally placid Gee Creek, which winds its way from Casselberry into Winter Springs before dumping into Lake Jesup.

“I was talking to a resident in Hacienda Village on the ham radio and he was checking that creek every 30 minutes, and everything was fine, and all the sudden the report came that there was like a tidal wave of water coming very quickly,” Winter Springs Deputy Mayor Kevin Cannon said. “And the rains didn’t just turn on suddenly. We had very steady rain for many hours.”

Cannon and Commissioner Ted Johnson both suggested the city look into why stormwater seemed to suddenly flood the Winter Springs end of the Gee Creek seemingly without warning, perhaps from the opening of a floodgate upstream in Casselberry during the storm.

Winter Springs City Manager Shawn Boyle said that wouldn’t have changed the outcome.

“Casselberry does notify us when they open their weir boxes, and the problem is by the time they’re opening their weir boxes it really doesn’t matter because they’re cresting anyway,” he said. “It’s a nice notice. but it’s coming.”

Where that water is going next was a worry for Winter Springs commissioners; officials from the St. Johns River Water Management District said that Lake Jesup appears to not be finished rising.

In the wake of Hurricane Ian, triage took on language of the unimaginable becoming real.

“This is what the insurance industry is calling a one in 500 year storm,” Florida Rep. David Smith, whose district includes Winter Springs and Oviedo, said. “Who can plan for 21 inches of rain?”

Smith spoke with the Winter Springs City Commission just ahead of a conference call he was set to be on to discuss the insurance implications of a storm that had been described as twice as destructive as Hurricane Irma.

“This is going to impact flood insurance, property and casualty insurance, autos from people who failed to evacuate and now their cars are a total loss,” Smith said.

Insurance companies can’t go bankrupt, he said, but insolvencies, when insurance companies don’t have enough money in reserve to pay out claims, were possible, at which point the Florida Insurance Guaranty Association pays out claims. FIGA is a nonprofit corporation established by the Florida legislature specifically to handle policyholder claims against insolvent insurance agencies.

“I’m sure we’ll see some additional insolvencies,” Smith said.

He said he was working to get federal money for Winter Springs.

“I don’t think I got us head-of-the-line privileges, but Winter Springs will be up there as we pursue some of the federal dollars,” he said.

Others also talked about how injecting money into future solutions could prevent issues that Ian highlighted. Cannon said that he was bothered by having nearly half of the city without access to cellular services or internet, despite no visible damage to towers, while the city sent out what he estimated were more than 200 emergency warnings related to the storm.

“It appears to me that none of those towers sustained any wind damage or structural damage,” he said. It also appears to me that many of them did not have backup generators.”

Cannon called on Smith to draw up legislation that requires cellular broadcast towers to have backup power generators.

“What immediately became apparent to me is 40 percent of our population, if they had to dial 911 …, they had no way to communicate, and that’s not acceptable to me,” Cannon added.

Listen to the full meeting here

Geneva 

In rural Seminole County, beyond the rising Econlockhatchee River, Lake Harney and into the St. Johns River, water is falling in some places and rising in others. Experts were still trying to predict the pattern. 

Mike Register, executive director of the St. Johns River Water Management District, said Monday, “The St. Johns River, just north of Lake Harney … has hit its peak today at 12.5 feet and is expected to trend downward going into Saturday. It is still, at that point, a foot or more above the major flood-staging level. It is going to be a slow process, but we are seeing that the river near that area in Lake Jesup has leveled off.”

But Lake Jesup itself, with multiple tributaries in Seminole County, was not done rising yet, at least not as of earlier this week. 

“The monitoring station that’s on Lake Jesup is showing that it continues to rise at a fairly constant rate,” Register said. “It’s not one of the ones that the [United States Geological Survey] has predictive flood modeling on. All we can do is look at what’s going on upstream and downstream of it, and that’s still showing that rising.” 

“I think it’s safe to say that you can see some continued increases of that water within Jesup until all of its tributaries have made their way out into the river,” Register added, referring to the St. Johns. 

Just a few miles east in Geneva, the popular Jolly Gator Fish Camp restaurant was no longer beside the St. Johns River, it was a part of it. Last Friday, the update was that it might be closed all weekend due to lack of electricity. By Monday, the update was about water pouring into the building. By Tuesday night it was a question of how high. 

Former Jolly Gator manager Mary Consolato had seen the building become an island after bad storms before, but not like this. 

“That’s the worst that I’ve ever seen in the 30 years that I lived out there,” she said. 

Wednesday, the river just outside the doors of the restaurant flowed unbroken across State Road 46, which remains closed, forcing some drivers to detour more than 50 miles to get around it, or take a boat to the other side.

On Tuesday, The Jolly Gator’s Facebook post read: “Water made it into the building but not terribly bad. It could be a lot worse. That’s for sure! Ready for these levels to drop so we can start the clean-up process and get back to normal. Thanks again for all the help everyone has offered. Hope to see you all real soon.”

Just a few miles east in Geneva, the popular Jolly Gator Fish Camp restaurant was no longer beside the St. Johns River, it was a part of it. Last Friday the update was that it might be closed all weekend due to lack of electricity. By Monday the update was water pouring into the building. By Tuesday night it was a question of how high. 

Former Jolly Gator manager Mary Consolato had seen the building become an island after bad storms before, but not like this. 

“That’s the worst that I’ve ever seen in the 30 years that I lived out there,” she said. 

Wednesday, the river just outside the doors of the restaurant flowed unbroken across State Road 46, which remains closed, forcing some drivers to detour more than 50 miles to get around it, or take a boat to the other side. 

Useful updates

Oviedo

  • FEMA will set up a mobile intake center to meet with folks who sustained property damage from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6 at the Oviedo Cultural Center. Folks can also call 1-800-61-FEMA or visit FEMA.gov
  • Mayor Sladek said the best way people can help their neighbors in need now is to donate to the local American Red Cross. Learn more
  • All Oviedo roads closed during the storm are now open. 
  • Cobb said all but 65 customers in Oviedo have had their power restored. All 65 are located in Alafaya Woods.
  • The city contracted with a debris collection company, which started service earlier this week.  

Winter Springs

  • FEMA’s mobile intake center will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7 at the Winter Springs Civic Center, 400 N. Edgemon Ave. in Winter Springs. Folks can also call 1-800-61-FEMA or visit FEMA.gov
  • Full electric, water and sewer utilities have been restored in Winter Springs, according to a video Mayor Kevin McCann emailed to constituents Wednesday night. Find that video here.
  • The following bridges are closed to vehicles and pedestrians as they undergo repairs: Northern Way at Howell Creek Drive; Northern Way at Brown Bear Court; Shore Road and Silver Creek Drive; Wade Street and State Road 419. Closed to vehicles and pedestrians.
  • The following bridges are closed to pedestrian traffic only because sidewalks are unsafe: South Edgemon Avenue and Gee Creek, Winter Springs Boulevard and Bear Creek, and Moss Road and Gee Creek.
  • The city’s boil-water notice has been lifted. According to the video update, the water system was repaired, flushed, tested and the results were sent to the Department of Environmental Protection.
  • Residents are advised to flush all faucets for at least five minutes, dispose of all ice and stored water left in the system, and to flush out the hot-water heater if there’s discoloration.
  • Normal household trash and recycling pickup has resumed.
  • Typical yard waste (leaves, twigs, palm fronds) must be bagged. McCann said 2,500 cubic yards of debris has already been collected within the city. 
  • Large-item pickup, such as construction debris and furniture, has been contracted with a company outside of the city.

Seminole County

  • State Road 46 remains closed in Geneva south of Lake Harney due to extreme flooding. Alternate east-west routes are State Road 415 and State Road 44 in Volusia County, and State Road 50 in Orange County. For more road closure information, click here.
  • For debris collection updates and collection and safety tips, click here. 
  • The county landfill is currently open during its regular hours. Learn more.
  • The Cross Seminole Trail, Red Bug Lake Park and Jamestown Park were the only east Seminole County parks that were open as of Wednesday, Oct. 5. For a comprehensive list of park openings, click here
  • The East Branch Library in Oviedo is closed for maintenance. Find an open Seminole County library here.  
  • County residents who experienced damage from the storm are encouraged to fill out a FEMA form. Find the form here
  • According to the county website, the following locations are accepting volunteers. Call 407-665-0000 for more information.  
    • Northland Church, located at 522 Dog Track Road in Longwood. Call 407- 949-4000 to learn more. Fill out a volunteer registration form here.  
    • Harvest Time International, 225 Harvest Time Drive in Sanford. Learn more
    • Learn more about volunteer opportunities at Volunteer Florida. 
  • Local help centers
    • The Sharing Center offers a food pantry, showers and laundry services. It’s located at 600 N. 17-92 in Longwood. Learn more by calling 407-260-9155 or click here
    • The Community Church of God at Geneva Urgent Needs Food Pantry, 695 Cochran Road in Geneva, is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7. Learn more by calling 407-718-9584.
    • The Rural Heritage Center, 101 East Main St. in Geneva, is serving as a FEMA assistance center, giving out bottled water and other emergency supplies. 
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