When it starts raining hard, Chris Girard knows the drainage ditch next to his home will be filling up. If it keeps raining hard, he knows it's time to start worrying. His duplex has flooded repeatedly during the 35 years he has lived in a low-lying area south of East Bay Drive and west of Belcher Road.
"If I flood again this year, I'm planning to sue," said the frustrated 57-year-old. "One time they told me it was a one-in-100-year flood, and I said, 'I must be 800 years old then.' "
Girard's home was the only building in Largo that flooded during three days of heavy rain in early July, city officials said. But there was significant street flooding in his neighborhood and other spots, with TV news reports showing footage of Largo residents wading through thigh-deep water.
With Florida's rainy season continuing and the busiest part of hurricane season upon us, many of these residents fear another round of flooding the next time Largo gets heavy rain. No one likes the sight of floodwater rising up a driveway toward the front door.
Some, like Girard, complain that drainage ditches aren't being cleaned out, making their neighborhoods more prone to flooding. Officials with Largo and Pinellas County say they don't have the resources to clean out every ditch routinely, but they do the best they can.
However, officials say flooding in and around Largo and other flat places in Pinellas County can be unpredictable for a variety of reasons.
"It's simple hydraulics. Gravity is what moves water. But in Largo, the majority of the east side of town is within 10 feet of sea level. There are fewer elevation changes," said public works director Brian Usher. "Any serious level of rainfall can lead to the water accumulating much more quickly than it would in other places."
Largo's stormwater eventually drains into either Old Tampa Bay or the Intracoastal Waterway, depending on which side of town the rain is falling on. High tides in those bodies of water can slow down drainage. Also, high tides in Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico can come hours apart, affecting drainage differently on opposite sides of town.
According to Usher, Largo had street flooding in the days just before July 4 because unusually heavy rain was falling on ground that was already saturated.
That led to several complaints:
• Christopher McCauley, who lives off Ulmerton Road near 66th Street, said his lot was flooding because a ditch beside his property was blocked by shrubs. The city said a nearby homeowners association was responsible for maintaining it.
• Kent Place, a private road off Belcher Road, has had deep street flooding. Residents have appeared at recent City Commission meetings to ask officials to fix significant drainage problems in their neighborhood near Allen's Creek. They want Largo to replace a rusty old drainage pipe that's in danger of collapsing, but the city says the pipe isn't its responsibility.
• Judith Jones, who lives in the East Bay Oaks mobile home park off Starkey Road, complained about what she called extreme street flooding. She lives along the same drainage channel as Girard.
Girard lives in a neighborhood that's partly in Largo and partly an enclave of unincorporated Pinellas County. He calls the drainage ditch beside his home a "linear retention pond" because it never goes dry. After walking for a couple of blocks, he comes to the edge of Largo's city limits, where the ditch becomes totally overgrown.
"That is the county," Girard says, pointing, "and it needs to be cleaned."
But there's no money for that.
"We do not have adequate funding at this time to put our ditches on a routine maintenance schedule," said Richard Coates, the county's director of transportation and stormwater.
There are nearly 325 miles of drainage ditches in unincorporated Pinellas, some so clogged with debris that the water flow is significantly slowed, officials say. That's why the county is considering charging residents in the unincorporated areas an annual $126 stormwater fee.
Meanwhile, Girard wants the city of Largo to buy his home.
In years past, Largo did buy several homes that had flooded repeatedly and were classified as "repetitive loss properties." Most were along McKay Creek. Cutting down the number of flood-prone homes helped other Largo residents save money on flood insurance rates.
But the city stopped doing this kind of thing a few years ago. "There is currently no money in that program," Usher said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.