The group gathered just off to the side of First Street, some carrying clipboards, others taking photos with their phones.
A collection of university students, experts and community leaders, they gathered Friday morning to walk through Port St. Joe, examining and cataloging the town’s stormwater infrastructure.
They were observing a creek, which flowed under the road through a drainage pipe. It was a few feet deep, with water levels still high from heavy rains earlier in the week, and its quick current gave a glimpse of what it would look like later that evening, when a severe thunderstorm moved in, bringing additional water.
The creek was their second of many stops that day, with their journey spanning from Avenue F to Seventeenth Street.
Eventually, the group hopes to be able to help the city and the community find funding to implement a variety of stormwater and flooding solutions, one prong of a mulit-faceted effort to improve Port St. Joe’s resiliency.
“We understand that there are multiple facets to, you know, to resiliency to maintaining a resilient community, and that they’re interconnected,” said Michael Volk, a research professor at UF who is involved with the project. “And so we want to be making sure that we approach it from multiple angles.”
Their efforts are part of the University of Florida’s Florida Resilient Cities Program, which started in 2019 with the goal of improving the overall resiliency of small Florida communities. Port St. Joe is the program’s pilot project.
Volk said that the University has been working in the Port St. Joe community since 2019, a few months after Hurricane Michael put the city’s stormwater infrastructure to the ultimate test.
But the monies the project hopes to secure are not hurricane recovery dollars. Instead, the group hopes to use federal and state grants aimed at preventing complications associated with rising sea levels and other disaster preparation grants.
“We engaged with the community through the Jessie Ball DuPont fund shortly after Hurricane Michael to learn more about the impacts on the community and to discuss different aspects related to resiliency within the community, including health and housing, the environment and civic aspects,” said Volk.
“We did it to basically help move that conversation forward, engaging people to build a community coalition to work on resiliency issues, specifically related to future rising tides, and flooding, and coastal hazards.”
As the group continued their journey through town, they observed several of Port St. Joe’s most water-logged areas.
City Finance Director Mike Lacour described the extent of flooding in the James Robert Sports Park as the group walked through the complex.
“There was four or five feet of water that ran through here during the hurricane,” he told the group. “We patched it back together.”
As they rounded the corner near Buck Griffin Lake Park, Christy McElroy described how the retention ponds had helped, and City Commissioner David Ashbrook showed the group the silt-clogged body of water that sits near the bay.
Jeff Carney, an associate professor in UF’s school of architecture and one of the program’s leaders, said the goal of the walk was to collect these testimonials from locals so that the group can put together a concrete plan of action and begin applications for funding.
“Even if we come up with a pretty simple strategy, just an understanding of how the whole system works together, I think the next step for us will be helping with this, if it’s a brick proposal, but the FEMA long term mitigation,” Carney told the gathered locals, looking out at the Bay. “ Basically a mitigation planning grant that you could take this entire network and say this is the future risk mitigation tool for the city.”