April 08-- Apr. 8--PANAMA CITY -- The okra was the first thing to disappear under the rising waters.
For weeks after Hurricane Michael, Donna Wallace had been watching as the pond behind her Washington County home steadily rose, using her garden as a measuring stick. Once the garden went under, she started watching the animals pushed closer and closer to her home.
"I had to kill two snakes," she said. "I felt like Annie Oakley. I hadn't had to use a shotgun in years."
It wasn't long after that she started being able to fish off her back porch. Then, she and her husband had to buy chest waders to put on before leaving the house to get to their cars. In December, the Wallaces finally threw in the towel and found an RV they could park at her mother-in-law's house. Now, she said, there's about eight inches of standing water in her home.
"All I had to do was replace some shingles after Hurricane Michael," Wallace. "It's just unreal. It's like (Hurricane Michael) said 'oh wait, we forgot these people. We'll get them now.'"
It used to be that when it rained, the Econfina Creek would temporarily swell with the influx of water and the extra water would surge downstream to Deer Point Lake. Within hours, the stream would usually settle back to its normal place on the bank.
But now "the water never really goes back to normal," said Brett Cypher, the executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District. "All those trees are acting as individual dams."
A combination of record rains in 2018 and hurricane damage appears to have thrown the wetlands out of balance, with ponds, lakes and streams rising, particularly in Washington County. In some areas, particularly around the ponds, residents say it's the highest they have ever seen it.
The result is dozens of flooded homes and altered habitat, even as work crews try to clear out the logs to bring the water level back down.
To understand how big of a change the floodplains are facing, it helps to look at the damage to the intricately-related trees.
Over one million acres of forests in the region faced severe or catastrophic damage, with between 75 percent and 95 percent of the canopy toppled, depending on how close the trees were to the eye of the Category 4 storm. Those same trees were also a key component of water management, as a single pine can take in up to 100 gallons of water a day in a process called evapotranspiration.
To put it in perspective, that tree loss "essentially adds that equivalent of a billion gallons of water that would normally leave from the trees," Cyphers said.
Which means, even if the region had average rainfall and the drainage systems wasn't clogged up, there would still be more water in the area that needs to be funneled through the ecosystem and then downstream.
But there was more rain than normal. The National Weather Service recorded 81 inches for the year at the Bay County weather station at the airport, not including data from the day of Hurricane Michael, compared to the previous record of 61 inches in 2014. And it's not uncommon for the counties to the north of Bay County, such as Washington County, where the flooding has been particularly egregious, to see a little more.
To compound the issue, the same trees that used to absorb the water are the same ones clogging the ditches that help move the water along, creating barriers to water movement in general and clogging up the creeks, streams and small rivers.
It's a recipe for flooding.
Every day, work crews hired by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection load their chainsaws and other equipment onto a small barge and head out onto the Econfina.
The mess of branches, roots, and tree trunks is as dense at some parts as a hairball caught in the shower drain, only on a much, much larger scale. The workers are the Drano, cutting away a bit at a time, loading the trimmings up on a barge, and then bringing it to the haulers waiting on shore. Cut. Load. Dump. Repeat.
It's slow, physical work. As of late February, FDEP had removed 18,400 cubic yards of debris at a cost of more than $2.8 million from Econfina Creek alone.
But in the same way a cleared drain will empty a bathtub, the hope is the work will relieve the flooding impacting dozens in Washington County and the Sand Hills.
Even with the five inches of rain that poured down on Friday, Nicole King Newsome can finally see the bottom of her neighbor's shed again -- one of her personal measuring sticks for how bad the flooding is getting at the pond behind her house. Since the end of March, she estimates the water level has fallen by about two inches, and given her six feet back in her yard.
It's a victory, but a small one. Her well is still underwater, which means she's having her family use bottled water to cook with and drink from and it' starting to get old. It's a better situation than some of her neighbors around her, who have no water or sewer at all, or who are still having to use hip waders to get from their homes to their cars. Last weekend, she watched as some people with a vacation house in Washington County drove up the house via boat to get what they still could out of it.
"The house has water in it, about a foot or more now," she said.
Based on the last six months, Newsome guesses it will take at least one full year before the water levels returns to normal around her. It's a long time, she said, but for now, she seems willing to stick it out.
Wallace is less optimistic. All five acres of her property are currently underwater, and while she has flood insurance and loves having a quiet space out in the country, she can't picture going back to her home.
"I don't want to give my property up. I'd like for it to go down so we can live in there again and have my pretty pond back," she said. "Though, I don't think I'll live there again. I don't think so. .... I mean, the mold you can't go in there anymore. It's so thick."
She and her husband have already started looking for another place, even visited a promising a lot where they lived before.
"They need to update their pictures," Wallace said. "It's completely underwater."
(c)2019 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)
Visit The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.) at www.newsherald.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.