The anger, frustration and disappointment over the apparent failure of the $53 million Ware’s Creek flood control project with the deluge wrought by Hurricane Hermine is perfectly understandable. Blame is being heaped upon the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency in control of the long-awaited endeavor that was thought would end neighborhood floods from heavy rains.
Corps documents title the work as a Flood Risk Management Project, a mitigation effort never designed to prevent all flooding. The creek is simply too narrow to contain excessive rains. And there are other factors.
Charlie Hunsicker, the director of Manatee County’s Parks and Natural Resources Department, met with the Herald’s Editorial Board and explained the project in greater detail than has been commonly known. The meeting was scheduled well before Hermine descended upon Manatee County. Hunsicker has been involved in the Ware’s Creek challenge for more than three decades.
The creek has a limited capacity to carry stormwater out into the Manatee River. And the Gulf of Mexico plays a devastating role in flooding — at high tide, those rising ocean waters block stormwater from draining into the river, acting somewhat like a dam, preventing the creek from emptying into the river and instead forcing those waters over the creek’s banks into neighborhoods.
“We will never be able to beat high tides,” Hunsicker noted. Heavy rainstorms over the course of a day or so will occur during tidal action. Following Hermine’s initial deluge on Aug. 31, the storm’s feeder bands offshore plowed inland — worsening the situation.
The goal of the Corps project, Hunsicker outlined, was to prevent flooding with rains measuring 5 to 6 inches in downfall, considered a five-year storm event. Previously, Ware’s Creek jumped its banks with a 3-inch storm. The creek mitigation project was also designed to reduce flooding from a 10-year storm, which translates into a 10 percent chance of a flood occurring in any given year.
Hermine exceeded the five-year figure, dumping some 7 inches of stormwater — 13 inches in some parts of the Cedar Hammock watershed, which includes Ware’s Creek downstream. Thus, water jumped the banks and caused damage.
That watershed was created more than a century ago when channels were cut into the land to drain swamps so farmlands and other benefits could be created. One of those channels runs under Cortez Road and spreads south. The Corps project stopped at that road. Another channel flows through G.T. Bray Park and extends west.
Looking back, the Corps and the county should have worked long and hard to define the project and mitigate public expectations.
Hunsicker’s explanation is unlikely to assuage creekside residents. But it should serve as a warning about future heavy storms. One option: Homeowners could consider raising their residences, but the expense is extreme.
The Corps project was only designed to “reduce the severity and frequency” of flooding, he stated, and Ware’s Creek will never be flood-proof. Those are “hollow words” to people suffering major losses, he said. Indeed, they are.