October 18, 2017

Cost of avoiding another Hurricane Irma: 'Hundreds of millions' in Lee County

By: Bill Smith


As Lee County pushes for a "greater sense of urgency" by contractors removing Hurricane Irma debris, the county manager warned that preventing similar impact from a future storm could hit hundreds of millions of dollars.

"I can't imagine a serious engineering project that will eliminate flooding given 16 inches of rain twice over a two week period of time," County Manager Roger Desjarlais said. "I don't know what it takes, I don't know how big a canal we have to dig or how many more we have to dig or how we have to redirect flows of water — I don't even know if we can." 

The county manager expects that whatever work is done, county taxpayers will shoulder a large burden.

"I feel comfortable telling you it may be hundreds of millions of dollars in order to mitigate to the extent that we would all like to do so," Desjarlais said. "We'll do the studies, we will tell you what those projects look like, and we will put them in some sort of priority."

During a wide-ranging, two-hour discussion of the county’s hurricane recovery battle, commissioners was also told:

·         Only one-third of county roads have been visited by the trucks picking up debris piled at the side of roads; that's 1,224 of 3,800 lane-miles of road in unincorporated Lee and the village of Estero. 

·         More debris trucks will be out as the contractor brings in equipment no longer needed elsewhere. Trucks may pass debris piles because the county can't be reimbursed for commercial waste removal and needs separate residential and commercial collections.

·         New disposal sites are open at the county trash-to-energy facility on Buckingham Road and at the Lee/Hendry regional solid waste dump on South Church Road in Felda. Also available, for $72 per ton, is the Zemel Road landfill in Punta Gorda.

·         Owners of wrecked seawallsshould try for Small Business Administration loans as the best available answer to funding repairs. The legality of seawall repair through the  PACE program adopted in Cape Coral was raised by County Attorney Richard Wesch, who said the county is not yet comfortable about entering the program. Punta Gorda's seawall ownership program couldn't be replicated in a hurry since the county would have to receive deeds to all the seawall.

·         Shelters aren't your first option when facing storms and flooding; sheltering in motels or staying with extended family is preferred. Emergency Manager Director Lee Mayfield said shelters "really should be your last option if other options don't work out."  The last shelter closes Saturday; as of Tuesday, there were about 154 people remaining in the shelter at the Estero Recreation Center; at the peak, 35,000 were in shelters.

·         Housing assistance is sought by 380 families receiving  transitional shelter assistance, some of which have homes needing repairs and some who are renters who can't get back in. Local housing authorities and Habitat for Humanity have been asked to help find temporary housing.

Flooding as a fact of life

Commissioners asked for help from county staff in explaining how long its taken for much of the Hurricane Irma cleanup. Explaining why it takes so long in some areas is apparently a top question.

"If the amount of debris had been the same as Charley, we'd be done, but we still have (the equivalent of) five more Charleys to pick up," said County Commissioner Larry Kiker. "There are people out there now with  no homes, businesses are gone,  and the first

Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass questioned whether the county can really be flood proof given the willingness of people to live in areas prone to flooding.

"If you really look at what other states have done to devise drainage for the hundred-year rain, our community would not want to see what that would look like," Pendergrass said. "There are reasons why certain areas are in a flood plain and they build houses there knowing it's going to do that, I don't know how you recover from that."

The idea of private interests profiting from taxpayer-funded construction of flood-proof infrastructure did not sit well with Commissioner Frank Mann.

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"Half of South Florida is built in a swamp, it doesn't look like a swamp, it looks like condos and golf courses and commercial shopping centers," Mann said. "When it rains a lot we flood, I'd rather warn them than subsidize the building of it and continue the mistakes we've made for a hundred years now."

Commissioners bandied about the possibility of requiring notices on deeds that the buyer takes the property with full knowledge that flooding is highly probable.

Answers to the flooding problems, for Irma and its progeny, are still evolving. The county manager warned about quick-fix solutions, citing criticism of the condition of Ten Mile Canal

"If you squeeze the balloon it's going to pop up somewhere else, they may think all we need to do is dredge the Ten Mile Canal," Desjarlais said.  "If you deepen the canal it may hold more water, but it doesn't flow any faster out to the bay."

Engineers and consultants will use new data to look at new strategies to prevent and respond to flooding issues.

"We've never seen flooding like this in Lee County, we've been sort of milling around the edges for a long time," Desjarlais said. "We're not sure what its going to take to deal with this in a way that's going to satisfy people."