Until three years ago, State Road 22, which runs from Wewahitchka to Callaway, had gone under water one time in 40 years, according to Gulf County Administrator Michael Hammond.
He can count at least five instances of severe flooding on the road since Hurricane Michael.
Just two and a half months ago, after an unusually rainy season, the stormwater that pooled on 22 caused a motor vehicle to spin out and hydroplane in Bay County. The driver did not survive.
“For 100 years, we were in the tree-growing business,” Hammond said in a county workshop on Oct. 27. “Then Deseret had a plan to convert a lot of that area… to cattle production, and then Hurricane Michael happened, and it increased that tremendously. It took millions of trees out of the equation.”
“And then we’ve had an extremely high amount of rainfall this year – record rainfall. And it’s been the perfect storm.”
County officials met with appropriate state and local parties, including Deseret, for several weeks leading up to the workshop. And the efforts to appropriately deal with excessive stormwater in Wetappo Creek have been a collaborative process, according to all parties involved.
Now, they’re hoping to determine the best way to implement some short and long-term solutions.
“Not only Wetappo Creek, but Bear Creek and some others, I think in Bay County as well, they’re experiencing the same exact issue,” said County Engineer Clay Smallwood. “I certainly appreciate where we are to date.”
“The main thing was to get on their radar and let them know that we’ve got a problem that’s bigger than us to solve.”
Flooding issues have become more prevalent throughout Gulf County and surrounding areas since Hurricane Michael.
The category five storm uprooted many of the area’s trees, which had previously absorbed tens of millions of gallons of water every day. Now, Hammond said that water has nowhere to go.
“We’ve lost millions of trees, whether from being cut down from cattle or from the hurricane,” he told the Star. “And if we don’t replace them, we’re going to continue to have problems unless we figure out some way to divert some of this water, because trees suck up a lot of water.”
Tree loss is not the only cause of increased stormwater in the county. Hurricane Michael swept debris into many of the area’s creeks and rivers, which now slows their flow and causes them to flood when it rains.
This, Smallwood said, is the most pressing issue around Wetappo Creek.
Paul Thorp, a representative from the Resource Management Division of the Northwest Florida Water Management District, who was present at the workshop, said that fixing this problem is going to require copious amounts of time, planning and money.
“The debris within the streams… that’s a large issue. It can be complicated, and it’s very expensive,” he said. “It can be very effective, but we would want to make sure its targeted correctly so that the funds are well spent.”
However, Thorp assured those present that funding sources for long term solutions are readily available. He offered the NWFWMD’s help in securing dollars from the Resilient Florida Grant Program and the Emergency Watershed Protection Program as examples.
In the short term, Deseret also offered their cooperation and assistance in remedying flooding.
“The way I see Gulf County is water flows from northern counties,” said Michael Archibald, Deseret’s general manager. “It flows down and Gulf County becomes a sponge… We want to work with the county. We’re stakeholders in the county, and we appreciate the opportunity to be involved.”
The county has ironed out plans with Deseret to place ditches on non-county property and to split costs to put in pipes to fix flooding on Route 20.
Hammond and Smallwood told the Star that the next hurdle will be securing the funding to address pooling stormwater on Highway 22 and in Pleasant Rest. Hammond told those present at the workshop to identify other areas of need by the next Board of County Commissioners meeting on Nov. 23.