5 years after Irma: Clay County fortifies its response ahead of next catastrophic storm

By Don Coble don@claytodayonline.com
Posted 8/31/22

CLAY COUNTY – Five years ago this week, a tropical wave quickly was organizing in the Atlantic Ocean into one of the costliest hurricanes in Florida’s history.

Although it was little more than …

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5 years after Irma: Clay County fortifies its response ahead of next catastrophic storm

Posted

CLAY COUNTY – Five years ago this week, a tropical wave quickly was organizing in the Atlantic Ocean into one of the costliest hurricanes in Florida’s history.

Although it was little more than a rain event by the time it gutted the length of the peninsula like a medical examiner’s scalpel, Irma left behind a $40 million swath of damage in Clay County that’s taken years to repair.

Flood waters, especially along the Black Creek and Doctors Lake, flooded homes, sunk boats and changed the way the county prepares for future storms.

While no emergency agency can turn back winds and driving rain, it can provide residents with better tools to minimize the damage.

County Emergency Management Director John Ward, whose agency kicked off Hurricane Preparedness Month on Thursday, said his biggest challenge is fighting a sense of complacency.

“When you look at Irma, Irma was really an isolated incident to the Black Creek and Doctors Lake area,” he said. “So everywhere else you know, they may have had some, some wind damage or some tree branches down or something, but it was really an isolated event for them.

“If you talk to people, you know, they say, ‘Well, we’ve been through Hurricane Matthew, we’ve been through Hurricane Irma. We’ve been through Beryl (in 2006) and all the other alphabet soup storms, but the truth is they really haven’t because when the systems came here, they had degraded so much that they may have been rainmakers. We have not had a sustained tropical storm in Clay County since 1964 (Hurricane Dora).”

The county has worked feverishly since Irma to improve its infrastructure. At the same time, the emergency management office has been just as committed to keeping everyone informed before the skies darken and the surf churns.

Emergency management has a preparedness guide that offers evacuation maps, ways to protect property and a checklist for a family disaster kit. The guide is available at www.claycountygov.com/community/emergency-management and claytodayonline/specialsections. There’s also a video at https://youtu.be/vHH4jZ6Vtio.

The county also spent $787,000 through the Community Development Block Grant to buy dilapidated homes on Forest Drive, Lazy Acres, Halperns Way and Scenic Drive in Middleburg to reduce flood damage by creating a permeable natural green space.

“You know, we’re some of them are repetitive loss homes,” Ward said. “We’re doing volunteer home buyouts for mine some of the homes that were repetitively flooded, bulldozing them and turning them back to natural green space. We’re working on quite a few programs like that.

“We rebuilt a couple of the piers with composite boards instead of wood. It’s supposed to stay together a little bit. There’s also been a couple of shovel-ready projects; there’s been a couple of drainage projects that we’ve worked on.”

According to Ward’s office in 2017, at least 450 homes were either heavily damaged or destroyed by Irma’s floodwaters that chased 900 residents to five emergency shelters. Ward called the damage a “catastrophic event” after flood waters capped at a record 28.5 feet along both branches of the Black Creek.

The National Weather Service said Clay County got about 14 inches of rain and wind gusts were measured as hard as 70 mph.

Statewide, Irma required $5.58 billion in state and federal assistance, according to the Florida Emergency Management Agency.

There currently is a string of storms in the Atlantic, so county officials want residents to stay well ahead of a possible strike.

“Even though Clay County is inland, we are still susceptible to damage from sustained tropical force winds, and we are certainly prone to flooding along the St. Johns River and Black Creek,” said county commission chairman Wayne Bolla. “Hurricane Irma caused significant flooding in Clay County in September of 2017, so now is the time to make a plan to protect your family and property. With all the recent rain we have had, it won’t take a significant tropical storm to cause inland flooding.”

And when officials sound the alarm, Ward said it’s imperative to pay attention.

“At the end of the day, we still need citizens to pay close attention to the word from their respective local government, no matter where they live, and take action at they’re told to and not believing social media or the other type of apps that they’re paying attention to,” he said. “We really just want to get the word out there.”

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