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HomeNewsLack of action has Winter Springs residents worried for hurricane season

Lack of action has Winter Springs residents worried for hurricane season

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When Bill and Joanne Plum, both 64, needed rescuing by the National Guard from their flooded Winter Springs home following Hurricane Ian, little did they know their problems were only beginning. And potentially avoidable.

The late-September storm battered its way across Florida, leading to more than 150 deaths and causing $113 billion in damage, making it the third-most costly United States storm on record. For the Plums and other Winter Springs residents, a lack of government communication and action potentially made their situation worse than it needed to be. 

Water surrounded the Plums’ home on Holiday Lane, reaching as high as their 4-foot tall mailbox before entering their living space.

“It was horrifying, it was scary,” Joanne said. “You’re crying, you’re shaking, you don’t know what to do, you don’t know what to grab and save. Your emotions are all going, we’re hugging each other. We’re crying in each others’ arms.”

Water rose more than a foot-and-a-half high inside the house.

“It’s almost like you’re at a loss, you don’t know what to do,” Joanne said. “I never realized what water damage can do. … It was just a very frightening experience that, in my opinion, was unnecessary.”

Significant flooding to the streets and homes around Gee Creek in Winter Springs displaced dozens of residents, some of whom have not been able to return to their homes, and many of whom who did not have flood insurance. This was despite a 2017-18 city-commissioned report by engineering firm CDM Smith that found the area’s floodplain had changed, nearby city infrastructure repairs were needed and a number of older homes, many of which were more than 30 years old and did not require flood insurance at the time of purchase, were at risk of flooding. 

In a March 24 email to city commissioners, Winter Springs Interim City Manager Philip Hursh said:

“I wanted to clear up any misconceptions in regard to the 2018 CDM Gee Creek Basin Study. There’s been a lot of opinions, rumors and innuendos from residents and others over the past couple weeks in regard to the CDM Study. This 103-page report is simply a gathering of data including historical USGS [U.S. Geological Survey] gauge data, FEMA data, soils maps and so on along with estimated maintenance cost of existing culverts and bridges. Based on the FEMA Maps and discussions with the City it identified 52 homes within the floodplain but then states that these homes are not considered repetitive loss properties.”

Certain work, such as adding sheet pile retaining walls to help with erosion, and annual cleaning of culverts, has been done, according to Winter Springs Public Information Officer Matthew Reeser. Brown and Plum, however, said that the flood risk and a recommendation to acquire flood insurance were never communicated to them following the report.

“If you do a study to find out what the needs are, and if the city doesn’t have the money to do the repairs, then at the minimum, you should be advising those residents of several things,” Seminole County Commissioner Jay Zembower said. 

“One: We’ve identified many needs through your area that need improvement to mitigate the flow of water, and we’re going to work toward finding the money to do that. Two: This study has indicated that your property has now been identified to be in a floodplain and you should take appropriate actions. [Three]: We are going to file a LOMR [Letter of Map Revision], which is the acronym for advising FEMA that you’re now in a flood zone.

“I have no evidence any of that ever happened,” he said.

But Hursh said that drainage maintenance does happen regularly. In an email to the Oviedo Community News, Hursh said:

“The city continues to maintain Gee Creek, at a minimum on an annual basis, to remove fallen trees and debris. This is accomplished with in-house staff and outside contractors who have much larger equipment to handle the bigger tasks. Hurricane Ian, which produced 17.7 inches of rainfall in just seven hours, is equivalent to a 500-year to 1,000-year storm event. In the aftermath of this catastrophic event, the city applied for and was awarded grant funding from the NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) to have all debris and trees removed from Gee Creek. The city is just finalizing the paperwork associated with this funding but should have the funding available in the near term. This is similar to what occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma where the city obtain[ed] similar funding to clear the Gee Creek and also construct a sheet pile wall along the Hacienda Village subdivision where the stream bank washed away. The City also applied for and was approved for the grant funding by Seminole County for the FEMA sponsored program HMGP (Hazardous Mitigation Grant Program) for the Gee Creek Stabilization Study and implementation between Shore Road and Alton Road. The crossing of Gee Creek at Shore and Alton Roads are hydraulic “choke points” to the creek system. We are awaiting final approval of this funding which should occur in the coming months.”

Work promised to begin

Hursh said, in his email to the commissioners, that with recent grant funding — from FEMA through Seminole County — the city will be able to perform “an actual detailed analysis of Gee Creek.”

Many of Joanne and Bill Plum’s belongings were ruined when their home flooded in 2022. Photo courtesy of Joanne and Bill Plum.

When they moved into their home 33 years ago, the Plums were told they did not need to purchase flood insurance, and were without it when Ian hit, despite the city knowing the floodplain changed. This not only led them to be displaced for six months, but they were also on the hook to pay more than $100,000 in home repairs. 

Denise Brown, a 62-year-old neighbor of the Plums who lives on nearby Lido Road, evacuated prior to the storm hitting, and returned to significant damage. Brown and her husband, Gary, had to stay with their daughter in Oviedo for three and a half months following Ian, and say they have spent more than $61,000 on repairs.

Going forward, Winter Springs Commissioner Ted Johnson has proposed the city hold information meetings for the public, to explain floodplain and map changes.

“[Then] it’s up to the homeowner to make an informed decision [about flood insurance coverage],” he said.

Brown first experienced flooding problems in 2016 but, despite pleas to city officials, say they never saw anything done to fix them.

“The road doesn’t drain right. They’ve known about this and they have done nothing,” she said, adding that flood water can rise as high as the bumpers of residents’ cars that are parked on the street during a typical storm. “I have fought with the city. I have sent them pictures. I’ve had emails. I even did a petition with [neighboring streets] that I presented to the city saying, ‘Look at this, look at what happened to the road.’ The road just never drained.

“[The roads] have never been maintained,” she said. “They don’t maintain anything unless you beg, beg, beg. And I’ve been begging, begging, begging. They finally did come out last Friday and started cleaning out these sewer drains.”

Hursh confirmed in an April 24 email to Brown that Winter Springs “is beginning a city-wide storm sewer cleaning program with the assistance of an outside contractor that can tackle larger scale projects with their larger equipment. The selected contractor will likely begin their work in the next couple weeks.

“Eventually, through various sources of funding, the city will begin upsizing the storm sewer pipes to allow for heavier flows,” he said in the email to Brown.

Following his election to City Commission in 2018, Johnson made it a point to walk through and observe the access points of Gee Creek, and saw how backed up with debris they were at the time. However, Johnson said the contractor the city hired at the time claimed the project was too large an undertaking, which left the city to purchase equipment and clear the creeks and culverts itself.

“I can personally attest that we cleaned them out as recently as back in 2018,” he said. “[For the 2023 hurricane season], we are actively engaged in clearing the waterways [with FEMA funds].”

Preliminary audit finds funds used on other projects

Discussion of lack of funding for other repairs has residents and officials alike scratching their heads, as Seminole County’s 2014 penny sales tax increase has provided the city with $19 million, earmarked for improving infrastructure. 

A recently released draft audit of Winter Springs’ spending done by the county said “The CITY [sic] proposed a group of projects that included: roadway improvements, new trails, new sidewalks, asphalt resurfacing, bridge replacement and repairs, stormwater water quality, and pipe realigning valued at $19 million.”

Photo of Shore Road after Hurricane Ian, courtesy of Joanne and Bill Plum.

Instead, the audit found funds were reallocated to be used for new police vehicles, “machinery and equipment, and various other capital needs for CITY [sic] facilities.”

“It shows tens of thousands of dollars being used for [city] operations,” Winter Springs Commissioner Victoria Colangelo, who was elected in November, said. “That’s a big no-no.

“It’s not appropriate spending, it had to be [for] infrastructure,” she said.

Mayor Kevin McCann pointed to state statutes that allow the replacement of any equipment with an expected lifespan greater than five years to be considered capital expenditures. 

“We followed the letter of the law,” McCann said. 

The city still has the opportunity to weigh in on the audit, which is not yet complete

Colangelo and fellow commissioner Cade Resnick place the blame of the city’s failings in terms of communication and lack of action on city management.

“The daily operations of what is happening inside City Hall is the city manager and directors,” Resnick said. “[Are the ongoing problems] a mistake by the commissioners? Yes. Is it an absolute dereliction of duty from the city’s director-level [personnel]? Yes, 100%.”

Former Winter Springs City Manager Shawn Boyle, who became city manager in 2019, resigned suddenly in February, citing “emotional and physical distress.”

With hurricane season less than a month away, residents like Brown and the Plums have finally acquired flood insurance, but are still worried about a repeat of last year.

“I did not want to move back here,” Brown said. “It’s like, [with] every rainstorm, [I am] a wreck. I pace, I pace, I pace. … As soon as it stops raining, I run down and look at the creek to see how high it is. 

“I’ve had two dreams that the house is flooding again,” she said. “I’m just like, this is not going to be a good season.”


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