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Despite Elsa’s uncertain path, Jacksonville not taking any chances

Public works crews clear drains & ditches, utility workers on standby in anticipation of Elsa’s impact

Public works crews clear drains & ditches, utility workers on standby in anticipation of Elsa’s impact
Public works crews clear drains & ditches, utility workers on standby in anticipation of Elsa’s impact

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With Hurricane Elsa churning through the Caribbean on an apparent collision course with Florida early next week, the city of Jacksonville isn’t taking any chances.

In a tweet Friday afternoon, Mayor Lenny Curry said his office has been in touch with city emergency management officials in anticipation of any impacts from Elsa that might be felt here in Jacksonville.

“It’s too early to tell if Elsa will stay on this track, but my team is already working with Our Emergency Ops to prepare for any impact,” Curry tweeted. “Please get your family, friends & neighbors prepared, should Elsa head our way. Stay tuned to your local news for storm updates this weekend.”

At the same time, city public works crews fanned out to the city’s most low-lying neighborhoods, clearing debris and trash from drainage ditches and pipes as part of an effort to head off any potential flooding Elsa might bring.

In a release, JEA said 2,000-plus team members of the city-owned utility are ready to mobilize and restore power if needed, as the agency prepares year-round for all types of storm events.

Earlier in the week, JEA crews could be found trimming trees encroaching on power lines in the Springfield neighborhood.

In the Lake Forest Hills community near the Ribault River on the city’s Northside, public works crews were focused on removing brush and discarded items such as tires and litter from ditches and drains to make sure water keeps flowing.

Their efforts were a welcome sight for residents like Ethel and David Richardson, who voiced concerns about potential flood damage they might see if nothing was done and there was nowhere for standing water to go.

“We are going to be flooded,” Ethel Richardson said. “And, as you can see from our home, the structure is starting to break down the foundation. … And we have no one here to help us, it’s this entire area.”

A home nearby shows what the Richardsons are talking about. At first glance, it looks like any other home in the neighborhood. But due to cracks in the foundation, the home has been condemned because it is no longer safe to live in.

On Ken Knight Drive, another flood-prone neighborhood targeted by city crews, standing water was visible from Thursday’s rainfall. That had residents like Will Faison hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

Faison said he signed up for flood insurance last week, but he wasn’t sure he’d be covered in time for Elsa. He said Hurricane Irma left a trail of devastation in its wake after water rushed over the banks of the Ribault River and came rushing into his home.

“Everything’s been destroyed,” Faison said. “My back door there right now, it’s destroyed, Can’t even use the back door. It’s destroyed because of the last flood they had. Something is going to happen.”

The problems found in those neighborhoods are the sort of issues that have the city taking stock of its drainage systems, particularly in low-lying areas that have been punished by storms and flooding over the years.

While funding from a new gas tax increase is expected to pay for upgrades to infrastructure, that work will take years to complete. Meaning, it won’t be of any comfort to these neighborhoods anytime soon.

A local business owner whose restaurant was destroyed during Hurricane Irma and eventually rebuilt says he is taking Elsa seriously.

“My eyes are glued to your station, trying to see what the weather looks like,” said European Street Cafe owner Andy Zarka. “Any mention of a tropical storm, depression, I don’t care where it is, I get on the map and start looking around. See if there’s any chance of it impacting us.”

When Hurricane Irma hit the area, it left parts of San Marco submerged under several feet of water.

Zarka’s restaurant was flooded so badly that it closed for six months and had to be rebuilt. Zarka is aware Elsa is potentially bringing a lot of rain that could cause flooding and he is already taking precautions.

“We actually stockpiled plywood that we already got pre-cut, ready to board up the doors. We’ve got special rubber sealants we put on the doorframes and those are all ready to go,” he said.

Also, when the restaurant was rebuilt after Hurricane Irma, he added weatherproofing to the building, reinforced the walls, did away with carpeting and kept the floor concrete. But Zarka says the safety of his staff comes first.

“We stay in touch with our staff on a daily basis and if things are coming, we make sure they know to take care of themselves and their families first and we’ll take care of the business,” he said.

In Nassau County, officials released a statement saying they are also monitoring Elsa. Officials also say residents should have a plan for a destination in the event that they are advised of a mandatory evacuation for the zone that they live in.

In Clay County, crews were clearing storm drains, and county officials tell News4Jax they’re ready for potential evacuations but won’t come to a decision on that until Monday.

Jacksonville and JEA are encouraging residents to keep tabs on the storm over the holiday weekend. To report outages, visit jea.com/outage or call (904) 665-6000. Customers who have enrolled in outage alerts also can text “OUT” to MyJEA (69532) to report an outage.


About the Authors:

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.

Award-winning broadcast and multimedia journalist with 20 years experience.