LIVE OAK — Two sinkholes did what pumps and miles of temporary piping could not after the city was deluged in late June by Tropical Storm Debby. The sinkholes drained millions of gallons of standing water within hours.
Parts of Live Oak were underwater — to an extent not seen since Hurricane Dora in 1964 — because of twin misfortunes: 1) The city’s topography of low-lying land allows water to accumulate in dips and pockets, and 2) the lack of adequate infrastructure such as stormwater retention basins and channels for the water to get to those basins.
“If you don’t have anywhere for the water to go, when the retention ponds fill up, they are full,” said Live Oak Public Works Director Brent Whitman. “When that happens, you see the result.”
But by the time new sinkholes swallowed water downtown and next to an overflowing retention basin in a neighborhood to the south, the damage already had been done.
Some businesses and homes were so damaged they have been condemned. And water still remains in other neighborhoods where homes were built decades ago in low-lying places.
Suwannee County Sheriff Tony Cameron said no firm damage estimates have been calculated but figured road repairs alone might cost $6 million to $8 million.
Flooding is nothing new in Live Oak. Downtown is the bottom of a bowl, and water pools to varying degrees in many places during heavy rains. But officials say the flooding from Debby was the worst since Dora in 1964, when 18.62 inches flooded Live Oak over four days.
According to the National Weather Service, Debby produced 14.74 inches of rain at one recording station in Live Oak from 8 p.m. June 25 to 8 p.m. June 28, while another recording station in town recorded 20.13 inches.
Many homes, particularly in the poorer section of Live Oak, were built in locations that current regulations enacted more recently probably would not allow. Some homes are built below the level of the street, so water flows off the street into the yard. Some are within 50 feet of small wetlands that rise with the rain. Some old neighborhoods have no storm drains.
Nature also works against Live Oak. Go by any creek in Gainesville during or just after a rainstorm, and that creek’s value in channeling water is evident. Live Oak has no such natural creek system, and the inadequate man-made system of drainage leaves some neighborhoods swamped.
Improvements to the town’s stormwater drainage system have been made in the past few years, including a large retention basin and piping that was built just east of downtown along U.S. 90 about four years ago by the state Department of Transportation.
District DOT spokeswoman Gina Busscher said the work has helped.
“We think that was effective. (U.S. 90) was closed for five days this time, but it was closed for three weeks back in 2004,” Busscher said, recalling a year in which another tropical storm doused the region.
DOT spent about $771,000 on two projects — the one on the east end and another on the west side of town, Busscher added.
A stormwater management plan for the city lists dozens of other projects, such as creating stormwater drainage systems in old neighborhoods that do not have drainage. The city does not have enough money to do the projects on its own and has been unable to get enough money from sources for the projects.
Requests to federal and state agencies for project funding have been turned down, Whitman said.
Agencies will often base their decisions on a cost-benefit analysis and decide the project submitted by Live Oak would not provide enough benefit for the money, he said.
“We’re continually trying to get grants and funding,” Whitman said. “The funding options have become a lot more limited. The requirements are more stringent, and the money available is a lot less.”
While Debby still was pouring down rain, Live Oak’s public works crews scrambled to set up a temporary water conveyance system with the use of 16 pumps and miles of portable pipes. But Debby was too much. She produced so much rain that the retention ponds to which the water was being piped overflowed. The city got permission from the landowner to pump some water to a former quarry, which helped but could be used only for the section of town nearest the quarry.
So ponds overflowed across streets — including the major corridors of U.S. 90 and U.S. 129 — and into yards.
Anthony and Dora Townsend were in their home in the Sherwood Forest neighborhood south of downtown and east of U.S. 129 on June 26 as the incessant rain fell. Their property backs up to a city retention pond. They have lived in the home since 1996 and have not had any flooding of note until now.
The water was inundating their yard before it quickly vanished.
“That morning I looked out the back door, and out by the metal shed, we had calf-deep water there,” Andy Townsend said. “A couple of hours later, probably around 3 p.m., Dora said, ‘I think a limb fell on the camper.’ She opened that back door and said ‘Oh my God.’ We saw that (sinkhole) opening and trees just being sucked in — I don’t mean falling over, I mean out of sight. During the day, it kept getting larger and larger.”
Added Dora Townsend, “I heard that noise in the backyard. It sounded like something rolling around and cracking — almost like you’re crushing a giant Coke can. Water was pouring in it. It wasn’t long before there wasn’t much water back there. It went somewhere down in the aquifer under our house.”
By Thursday, the sinkhole in the Townsends’ yard had grown to about 200 feet by 125 feet. It swallowed a basketball goal in addition to the trees. It has crept to about 20 feet from the corner of their house, which has been condemned. They have been living in their camper since then and are insured.
Meanwhile, water was flooding downtown businesses along U.S. 90, rising up from the town’s low point at the intersection with Pine Avenue.
Jon Boggus, whose family has owned a jewelry store there for 65 years, was called about the flooding by another business owner and rushed to the store to find water coming in.
Then on June 27, the earth cracked and the water went subterranean.
“We had just left to go to lunch and contact FEMA, and when we came back it was gone,” Boggus said of the deep floodwaters.
Boggus, who said the drainage improvements have helped reduce flooding from other periods of heavy rain, ended up having to replace flooring, sheetrock and some furnishings.
The sinkhole caved in just south of U.S. 90 adjacent to the Suwannee County Courthouse. Because of the flooding and sinkhole, several businesses have been condemned.
Meanwhile, staff at the clerk of the court’s office has moved to a different area of the courthouse, and records have been removed from the basement for safekeeping.
Busscher said DOT used ground-penetrating radar and other testing to try to determine the dimensions of the cavity. The information has been turned over to the state.
A few business owners who were flooded said they plan to remain where they are, adding that drainage has gotten better with the DOT’s stormwater projects. They said the volume of rain produced by Debby may not happen again for a long, long time.
“We only had nine inches of water in here,” said attorney Hal Airth on Thursday. “This was a bank before and then my father and uncle bought it in the ’70s. I got it from them. We are going to rebuild. We’re open for business right now.”