Residents of the flood-prone Thousands Oaks community in Trinity filled Pasco's commission chambers Thursday night, looking for answers.
Along with nearby Trinity Oaks, the community sits at the bottom of a bowl in the Duck Slough watershed. Those neighborhoods were some of Pasco's hardest hit by Tropical Storm Debby and subsequent rainstorms. But county officials have been working on flooding problems in the area since 2003. Many angry residents wondered: Why is a fix taking so long?
"In nine years, why haven't they done anything to help us?" said Michael Styers, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper. "Every time I hear the weather I cringe."
In the aftermath of Debby, Styers and his wife used sledgehammers to bust through a wall surrounding the neighborhood to allow water to escape across Mitchell Boulevard.
The rains got inside the homes of about 10 people who attended Thursday night's meeting. Another 15 had water inside their garage or on their porch. Many people were unable to leave their home because their neighborhood streets were underwater for three days.
One problem was the sheer amount of rain over the past several weeks.
"We suffered a phenomenal quantity of rain in a very short period of time," said Emergency Management director Annette Doying. "All of the stormwater design around you was overwhelmed. And then the rain continued for weeks and weeks."
Debby alone brought about 16 inches over three days. A series of storms added another 10 inches to the saturated ground over the next several weeks. That exceeded what officials call a 100-year storm.
The county has spent about $2 million over the past several years on smaller-scale stormwater improvements. But those start to fail when a storm exceeds the 100-year level.
Another problem is that the wetlands near Thousand Oaks are higher than nearby retention ponds, which doesn't allow them to drain properly. One possible solution is to dredge a canal through the wetlands to improve the drainage. But the county must get approval from federal and state agencies before it damages wetlands.
"The problem is the solution requires a permit," said Michele Baker, the chief assistant county administrator. "The county cannot simply drain the swamp. We are not allowed to do that."
County staffers have found evidence that the wetlands had been previously damaged by development. They plan to ask for a "maintenance exception" from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, in order to do the dredging.
Several politicians have taken up the cause, including state Rep. Richard Corcoran, who lives in nearby Longleaf. He drafted a letter to Swiftmud board members, imploring them to grant the county's request.
But Baker said she got word Thursday that the county would need a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regardless of Swiftmud's decision. That process could take months.
"This is going to take a lot of time, and I know that's very frustrating," Baker said.
But some residents want a quicker fix. "These people are in terror," Thousand Oaks resident Daniel Waterman said in a rousing speech. "Let's get going."
Ron Levi, president of Trinity Oaks Property Owners Association, suggested the county should simply start dredging. "Let's get the bulldozer," he said. "I will drive it."
That, of course, would invite a lawsuit against the county.
"There are laws we have to follow," County Engineer Jim Widman said. "If you get a cease and desist order and a threat to go to jail, they mean it."
Baker said the county is exploring both large-scale and smaller solutions.
Staffers will determine which options are cost effective, practical or able to qualify for a permit.
A special task force on the neighborhood's flooding problems meets Monday afternoon.
Officials said the origin of the problem began when the developer was allowed to build homes in the neighborhood several inches below the water table. The problem got worse as the Tampa Bay Water regional water authority reduced groundwater pumping in Pasco.
One resident called that decision "disgusting," and several others called for legal action against the developer.
"Why isn't anyone being held accountable for what they did to us?" said Anne Sullivan of Thousand Oaks.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.