TAMPA — As Hurricane Michael roared far offshore past the Tampa Bay area, Mayor Bob Buckhorn monitored the storm with considerably less anxiety than he had during previous downpours.
After millions of dollars were spent, the city’s massive stormwater fix appears to be paying dividends, Buckhorn said.
“We’ve been digging and spending for two years now,” Buckhorn said. “I know we’ve dug a lot of swales and cleaned a lot of ditches and roto-rootered a lot of big pipes.”
The work isn’t done yet, he said, but he’s optimistic.
“You get a storm with a high tide, it’s going to happen. But the daily stuff that is such an inconvenience is largely mitigated,” Buckhorn said Wednesday morning as the city experienced flooding on Bayshore Boulevard and parts of Davis Islands with Michael’s passage west of the Tampa Bay area.
The hurricane flooding was significant but far less damaging than the weeks of rain that plagued the city in 2015. Later that year, the City Council raised a fee paid by property owners so the city could clean out more ditches and ponds, sweep streets and unplug storm drain outfalls. For the owner of a medium-sized house, the fee rose from $36 to $82.
In 2016, the council approved a $251 million drainage improvement program over opposition from some property owners. The fee will ramp up to $89.55 for the owner of a medium-sized home by 2022 and will remain in place until 2046.
Many of the larger projects are still underway, but the results have been noticeable, said Jean Duncan, the city’s stormwater and transportation director.
“I think it’s made a dramatic impact on the system that's in place and our ability to build more components into the system,” Duncan said.
All the outfalls along scenic Bayshore Boulevard have been cleaned out, in many cases by divers using drills and crowbars to knock away barnacles as hard as concrete. That helped reduce South Tampa’s flooding problem immensely, she said.
Critics of the fee hike, notably City Council Chairman Frank Reddick, noted at the time that the bulk of the projects benefited more affluent areas while leaving poorer neighborhoods in East Tampa and North Tampa largely untouched.
Duncan pointed to a program that converts flooded properties into retention ponds in North Tampa. She conceded East Tampa didn’t have any major stormwater projects, but said smaller projects will offer some relief to East Tampa neighborhoods.
Council member Harry Cohen, who is running for mayor and represents South Tampa, said it’s clear that the work done so far has had an impact. Large drainage projects in Seminole Heights, Cypress Street and near MacDill Air Force Base should also create noticeable reductions in flooding, he said.
Three years ago, Cohen was driving on South Howard and West Swann Avenues after three weeks of heavy rain had drenched Tampa Bay. He rolled down his window to take a picture and was met with a “wall of water” as a passing vehicle splashed water into his car.
“We’ve been extremely successful,” Cohen said, “in making a big difference in afternoon storms."