I-TEAM: Putnam County road cut off by flooding for 2 months
Residents fed up, worried more rain will cause even bigger problems
WELAKA, Fla. – For two months, many Putnam County drivers have had to take a different road to get to and from work because part of County Road 308B in Welaka has been swallowed by flood waters.
At least 10 inches of rain has fallen since July, causing a retention pond next to the road near Elm Street to overflow.
As a result, about 100 feet of the road between Welaka Village and the town’s city hall has been closed to cars, and, as the I-TEAM discovered, part of the road remains covered with about a foot of water.
Residents fed up with flooded road
“It goes up about 200 yards this way and 200 yards that way,” David Schrider said as he pointed to flooding on each side of 308B.
Schrider contacted the I-TEAM, concerned the county is not doing enough to fix the problem.
“Putnam County roads is pretty much telling me to say a prayer. There’s nothing they can do about it. The sheriff is telling me they’re monitoring these roads right now, and I’ve been down here quite a bit and I’ve never seen a law enforcement officer here. I’m fed up with going around,” Schrider said.
While there are other roads that lead to Crescent City and Welaka, the closed portion of CR 308B is the fastest route -- not just for commuters, but also for emergency responders. An alternate route is several miles out of the way.
“As a former first responder, our job is to help save people, to get to people who need help and assistance,” said Desiree Myers. “With this road the way it is, we can’t do it.”
Myers is worried it may take too long for paramedics to reach her home with the road closed. Her teenage son has a heart condition, and as a former EMT, she knows that minutes can make the difference between life and death.
“The county needs to be held responsible for making sure that first responders can get here to do their job. We are doing all we can, isn’t good enough,” she said.
The flooded road is right in front of Isaiah Mills’ home. Part of his side-yard and backyard are also flooded. His rental home across the street is also filled with water. “My tenants had to move out,” he said. “I don’t have flood insurance.”
Mills told us he’s lived his entire life in Welaka, and has not ever seen this part of CR 308B flood so badly. He is frustrated that more has not been done to clear the road but said he has not thought about complaining to county leaders.
“I have not seen the county do anything except, like come here and put up these signs that say water over the road,” Mills said.
We saw several signs warning drivers the road is closed to traffic and is covered by water. But, Schrider is increasingly frustrated to see trucks are ignoring the signs and driving through the water anyway.
We saw at least a dozen pickup trucks and commercial trucks drive through the flooded road while we were there. Schrider is concerned the weight of the trucks and the long-standing water over the road will erode it further causing so much damage, that once the water does finally recede, it will need to be closed for repair.
I asked him if he felt like the county is ignoring the people of Welaka because it is a small town with about 700 residents.
“Yes," he said. “I do really think we are being ignored.”
I-TEAM takes concerns to the county
As a county road, Putnam County is responsible for its maintenance, so we took our concerns to the county's administrator, Public Works director, and the commissioner representing residents of Welaka.
“I wouldn't’ say they (residents) are being ignored, we are out there every day,” County Administrator Terry Suggs said. “We are trying to find a solution to the problem, and I’ll be honest, we don’t have that solution yet.”
But, Suggs did tell us, that right now, the water is not too high for emergency response trucks to use the road.
“The road is closed for safety reasons to small vehicles and motorcycles. Our safety vehicles are still able to traverse that highway,” he said.
When our cameras visited the area, the water had receded some, so we asked, "What if the flood waters do rise and become too high for safety vehicles to pass?"
“We look for solutions as we are doing today. We will always be able to provide a service to them. We will make sure we can get to our residents," answered Suggs.
Suggs had Putnam County Public Works Director Press Tompkins show News4Jax why the flooding problem is so difficult to solve. Tompkins displayed a topographical map, which shows elevations in Welaka. Pointing to either side of CR 308B, Tompkins explained that the area covered with water is like a bowl.
“You can see we are about 70 feet above sea level here, and over here, we are about 40 feet, and everything is channeling down in all directions into this bowl area,” said Tompkins pointing to the portion of the road that has been under water for two months.
He said the water table in Putnam County is extremely high due to Hurricane Irma and from summer rain showers. As a result, he said it does not take much water to flood.
Our Sky4 helicopter recorded a retention pond overflowing near the flooded portion of CR 308B, as well as several acres of land beyond it also submerged in water.
“We have about 120 acres of land staged up,” Tompkins said.
He said this means the water table is so high from Irma's rain last year, rain from persistent summer showers is not soaking into the ground.
“The groundwater table is up as high as it’s been in 30 to 40 years,” he added.
Would ditches be a fix?
We then asked Tompkins if ditches could be dug on either side of the road to help drain the water off.
“If you try to dig ditches on either side, it will be very deep and it would take up a tremendous amount of property and I don’t think that is a viable solution,” said Tompkins, who also pointed out that most of the land is private and not owned by the county.
Would pumps be a fix?
The I-TEAM asked Tompkins if the flooding on CR 308B could be pumped off the road, but he said there is nowhere to put it since so much of the area is already flooded.
Would a bridge be a fix?
Tompkins said they have considered building a bridge over the flooded water, but said until some of it recedes, he can’t do that.
“I tell people very candidly, we are at Mother Nature’s mercy right now.”
There is currently "no place for the water to go"
District 1 Commissioner Bill Pickens, who serves Welaka, said he's been aware of the flooding problem, but reiterated what County Administrator Terry Suggs and Public Works Director Press Tompkins explained, “There is no place to drain it efficiently.”
All three county officials did agree that they would be happy to meet with Welaka residents to explain why there is no easy or immediate solution, especially since they all agree another storm or more rain could make the flooding worse.
The I-TEAM will continue to monitor the flooding along CR 308B and press the county for solutions -- should the water rise enough to impact emergency response times.
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