When news of the impending Hurricane Ian reached Jessica Kaiser and her family, they knew they were confident that they could ride it out. The Geneva resident had lived on the St. Johns River for 18 years and flooding is not unheard of. But when the storm began, she watched as the water crept inch by inch toward her home.
To Kaiser, it felt surreal.
“It was just like wow, this is really happening,” Kaiser said. “We’ve dealt with all the storms and everything…but this was just so fast, it didn’t give us time.”
Thanks to the eight pumps the Kaiser family kept running to keep the stormwater out, the damage inside their home was mainly contained to one room that was previously used as a bedroom by Kaiser’s niece and nephews.
Kaiser said they were able to salvage some of the sentimental items from the room, like an old dance uniform and school awards won by her niece and nephews. But some items were too damaged to keep.
“I had a hard time when it was time to throw everything out,” Kaiser said. “My nephews and my sister came over and they were helping, it was good that we were going through the memories. Like I said, I lived there 18 years so we’ve created a lot of memories, especially in that room.”
Seminole County Emergency Management Senior Planner Steven Lerner said that after Ian there were 426 homes in Seminole County that were inaccessible due to flooding. After Nicole that number was 192 ‒ many of them were the same homes that were damaged during the first storm. Now, many of those homes are finally accessible but officials say there’s a lot of damage to deal with.
Duhane Lindo, the American Red Cross of Central Florida’s regional communications manager, said that as the organization has worked toward assisting impacted community members, the damages caused by the storms have become clear.
“Frankly, our request teams have gone out into the hardest hit areas and it’s eye opening the amount of destruction that we’ve seen thus far,” Lindo said. “I’ve spoken with families that have lost everything. I’ve had families, mothers and fathers cry and kind of explain how they’ve lost everything and the Red Cross was there to help.”
Hurricane Ian first made landfall west of Fort Myers on Sept. 28 and then unleashed more than 15 inches of rain on Greater Oviedo and Winter Springs in a 24-hour period. That number was later reassessed by FEMA to be 27 inches for Winter Springs, according to Winter Springs City Manager Shawn Boyle. The area’s storm drainage systems became overwhelmed as the initial rains hit, leading to widespread flooding. Water levels continued to rise or remained high even after the rain had stopped, with bodies of water such as the St. Johns River reaching flood levels of 12.2 feet on October 1. 43 days later Florida residents received another 6 inches of rain from Hurricane Nicole which made landfall in Vero Beach, Florida in the early morning of Thursday, Nov. 10.
Lerner said there was an expectation of flooding prior to the storms but the actual amount was historically large.
“We got word that there was a massive amount of water that was going to be brought to Seminole County,” Lerner said. “Over the last few weeks before Ian we were unusually saturated, so we knew that there would be prolonged flooding. Prior to Ian, Seminole County’s historic flood event was Tropical Storm Fay in 2008 and we’ve far exceeded that historic level.”
Lerner said the work that was done to rectify Ian was set back following Nicole.
“We are now where we were three weeks ago with recovery from Ian,” Lerner had said just after Hurricane Nicole hit.
Flooding and debris
Though the flooding has gone down significantly at Kaiser’s property, evidence of the water that once surrounded their home remains. Kaiser said though the flooding was impactful, it’s important to focus on the good where they can.
“We’re just in the rebuilding stage,” Kaiser said. “We had to get a dumpster and throw a lot of our stuff away because of the moisture and the mold. But it’s all stuff, you know, and it is important but what’s more important is that we’re safe.”
Julie Atwell is another Geneva resident whose property became flooded during Ian. She said though this was her fourth flood, it was different from the others she’s experienced as there was less time to prepare.
“We were anticipating that the water was going to rise a lot,” Atwell said. “But we in the past have had at least a week or quite a few days to prepare, and with Ian, that storm dropped so much water. Literally overnight we were at the point we were at with the Fay flood.”
Joy Recicar is the vice president of the Rural Heritage Center, a Geneva-based organization that has served as a temporary hub for hurricane relief resources for those impacted by the storm. She said that although Nicole was less severe than Ian, the storm affected the area’s recovery efforts.
“It’s not as bad as it used to be,” Recicar said. “It’s just kind of like two steps forward, one step back.”
Another lasting impact of the hurricanes is the large amount of leftover storm debris in Seminole County from both storms, according to Lerner.
“We’re estimating seven Epcot ball-sized piles of debris,” Lerner said. “So it’s about 500,000 cubic yards.”
Atwell said that, after the flooding went down, they could clearly see all of the debris from the docks of neighbors and the tree that had gone down in their yard.
“We have wood everywhere still and if you look at our house you would think it was kind of a warzone,” Atwell said. “There’s wood and branches and just piles of things everywhere still, so we’re working slowly on cleanup.”
Issues of flooding and debris have merged in some cases, with debris removal trucks that were unable to enter some areas because of the floodwater. Lerner also said it will take time to follow the proper disposal process for everything left behind from the storm.
“There’s a lot of FEMA policy and guidance and regulation that has to be followed to the point of actually geotagging tree limbs in order for them to qualify for reimbursement,” Lerner said. “We’re having to jump through those hoops so that our residents don’t have to bear the cost of very, very expensive debris removal. But we can assure every resident that all debris piles will be picked up at some point, it’s just that patience is so important right now.”
Lack of coverage
Lerner said if there’s one thing residents should take away from the storms, it’s to consider updating their insurance policies.
“If people don’t see it now, they will never see the importance of having flood insurance,” Lerner said. “Particularly in Seminole County, we are seeing large numbers of homeowners insurance denials because the policies don’t cover flood insurance.”
Kaiser said her family did not have flood insurance when the storms hit and that she had to detail the lack of coverage to FEMA for assistance.
“I know we had to get a letter from our homeowners insurance saying that it was all flood-related and that we don’t have flood insurance,” Kaiser said.
According to a fact sheet released by FEMA on October 1, the Individuals and Households Program offers assistance to cover the structural parts of homes such as windows, floors, walls, ceilings and more. The program can also cover “Other Needs Assistance”, which includes reimbursement for costs such as burials, storage, or even medical and dental expenses.
Oviedo Mayor Megan Sladek said she knew of a few flooded houses in the Oviedo area that were unable to receive coverage from their insurance, leaving them to rely on assistance from organizations like FEMA.
“There’s no government assistance through the city available,” Sladek said. “It’s all through FEMA. It may be, for some of these people, that’s all they get.”
In Winter Springs, Boyle said that in the past few weeks the city has been working with county officials and FEMA doing assessments on bridge and road damage. A scope of repairs estimate on bridges has been completed. FEMA is expected to be on site Friday to conduct in-person inspections to determine funding eligibility. Repairs to Winter Springs Boulevard will begin Dec. 12. All sewer and water utility repairs have been completed.
With property damages from both storms totaling $344 million in Seminole County, Lerner said financial assistance from groups such as FEMA may not cover the total cost but it does help. So far, FEMA has distributed $16.8 million in assistance in the county.
“There’s a lot of relief out there, but there’s a lot more recovery to be done,” Lerner said.
Through it all, Seminole County residents did what they could to help their fellow community members before, during and after the storms. Kaiser said she can’t thank Joy Recicar and many others enough for their help.
“It would have been easy to just give up,” Kaiser said. “But God just helps you and pushes you through and provides people – neighbors, friends, church, family, our pastor, everyone to all just come together and help each other out.”
Sladek said she knew of many residents who took in their neighbors temporarily and spoke fondly of the efforts that were made to bring resources to heavy-hit areas such as Geneva.
“I think the Geneva story is the most interesting part of the whole thing,” Sladek said. “Just how everybody wanted to help so much they kept on going.”
The efforts of organizations such as the Rural Heritage Center and the Red Cross have continually offered resources for impacted residents, such as hot meals or cleaning supplies, to help support them as efforts to repair and rebuild go on.
“We’ve moved into the cleaning supplies stage, which we’re at now, which is open four days a week for about three or four hours each time,” Recicar said. “It’s been neat to see the gratitude. Some of them have come in and…we’ll go and load them up with things. And so many have just been in tears like, ‘This is for us?’ I’m like, this is for you.”
There may be property damage and issues like leftover debris to deal with, but residents like Recicar said members of hard-hit communities like Geneva are strong.
“One of the things that I admire so much about the people in Geneva is their grit, their perseverance, their positive outlook,” Recicar said. “They’re hard-working, amazing people. And this is what Geneva was built on.”