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Looking back: One Year Anniversary of the April 2014 Floods

A year ago today, southwest Alabama and northwest Florida experienced a devastating storm that left hundreds without access to their homes and businesses. Many buildings were flooded and people were stranded by a hurricane-force storm that didn’t come with the luxury of a week’s warning. Rainfall records in Pensacola go back to 1879, and the April 29-30 storm broke them all, estimating more than 20 inches over the two days. Not only was the rainfall heavy, but the torrent was high in both velocity and volume—at one point, a mind-boggling 5.68 inches fell in the span of one hour. That’s half the annual rainfall of many cities in California and Texas!

Damage in a devastated neighborhood, April 29, 2014. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Damage in a devastated Pensacola neighborhood, April 29, 2014. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

The buzz word among those in the disaster preparedness business these days is “resilience,” or the ability to recover from a devastating economic or natural disaster. After being hit with the hurricanes of 2004-2005, the oil spill in 2010, 13” rains in the summer of 2012, and last year’s April flood, northwest Florida has surely had plenty of “resilience” training. Unfortunately, an unexpected disaster like these can leave many individuals without a place to go or funds to recover, and we are lucky in Escambia County to have organizations like BRACE to help lift those most affected.

With every dark storm cloud comes a silver lining, though, and just like the millions pumped into our local economy from oil spill-related fines, the April 2014 floods have awakened a “greener” ethic among local residents, business owners, and politicians. According to a study just released by consulting firm Arcadis, when asked about infrastructure changes and improvements to flooding and stormwater, attendees at community meetings overwhelmingly preferred “low impact” solutions such as expanded green space, cisterns, rain gardens, and stream restoration to “hard” structures such as bigger underground pipes and more pumps. While traditional engineering infrastructure is still crucial to a community that must maintain roads, stormwater ponds, and buildings, I find it encouraging that residents are interested in trying different techniques that have proven successful both here and in other parts of the world.

Rainwater harvesting methods like this cistern help reduce the amount of runoff produced from a single building. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Rainwater harvesting methods like this cistern help reduce the amount of runoff produced from a single building. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

According to the Pensacola Bay Eastern Sub-Basin 2015 Action Plan created with input from engineering firms, residents and staff of the city of Pensacola and Escambia County, recommendations include changes to the county land development code related to stormwater retrofitting and increasing the holding and percolation capacity of stormwater treatment from the “25 year” flood standard to the “100 year” flood description. While these terms would indicate that we only get storms of a certain magnitude once every 25 or 100 years, rainfall patterns in fact show that our area has experienced a “100-year storm” (calculated as 13” in 24 hours), at least four times in the last hundred years (SWAT Report, March 2015).

So, how does one prepare for unexpected storms? How can we be resilient when we barely recover before getting hit with yet another disaster, whether manmade and natural? There’s no magic bullet, but this will begin a series of articles delving into those “low-impact” stormwater management (and hurricane prep) techniques that can help lessen the impact of the intense storms we experience here in northwest Florida. Local municipalities are working steadily on recovery, and more information can be found at the Escambia County Stormwater Advisory Team and City of Pensacola “Recovery” webpages.

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