Ten months after Hurricane Matthew ripped down trees across Jacksonville, people in a neighborhood along Pottsburg Creek are still trying to get trees removed that are causing the creek to flood.
“Everybody says they’re going to help, and no one does anything,” said Maureen Kirschhofer, whose backyard has been covered by standing water after rains this summer.
Trees that shaded the creek before the hurricane block it now and keep water from moving downstream, and floodwaters instead have backed up to the edges of some homes.
Projects to clear debris left after the October hurricane ran out of money and ended in the spring without getting to the Secret Woods community near Bowden Road.
People there have been trying for months to find someone in almost any government agency willing to clear the creek.
“We are now in hurricane season and we feel like ‘sitting ducks’ just waiting for the first storm that will cause huge flood damage to our homes,” J. David Theus, the area’s homeowner association president, wrote last month in a letter addressed both to City Hall and U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, R-Jacksonville. “… If we have a major storm or a hurricane, it is a foregone conclusion that the homes will be flooded.”
A tree surgeon who walked the blocked section of Pottsburg last month and said 22 trees should be cut up and moved.
Contractors have offered estimates from $82,500 to $94,000 to clear the creek.
That’s not cheap, Theus told the city officials, but “compared to the cost (of) damage of the 12 to 15 houses that would be affected is small.”
Politicians say they’re looking for a solution, but it hasn’t been simple.
“I hate that it’s taken as long as it has, and I pray to God that those trees are removed soon,” said City Councilman Scott Wilson, whose district includes Secret Woods.
Wilson said he and state Rep. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, have been talking every couple of days about steps to get the creek clear. Yarborough said he’s reaching out to people who know the minutia of state funding to help find some overlooked pot of cash.
“In an $82 billion state budget, I’m sure we can find less than $100,000 to get this cleaned up,” he said.
Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection committed more than $15 million for debris removal in Northeast Florida after Matthew. That paid to remove about 156,000 cubic yards of debris, mostly to clear navigable, state-owned waterways, said Dee Ann Miller, an agency spokeswoman.
About $900,000 hasn’t been spent yet, but one company hired for cleanup work hasn’t filed its last invoice and it’s unclear what the final tab will be.
City administrators have talked to the state about the creek but won’t ordinarily pay for tree removal in creeks unless there’s a blockage disrupting the city’s drainage system, said Tia Ford, a city spokeswoman.
Yarborough said he was told city officials are willing to handle the work if they’ll be reimbursed, but they want assurance they won’t be liable for the creek’s condition in the future.
But even if money is available, state officials haven’t been sure they’re responsible for the creek.
The state considers waterways that are navigable for commercial uses to be part of its responsibility but recently sent people from Tallahassee to look closely at the creek, which is big enough for kayaking but not much more.
But the creek people see now isn’t the way the creek was before the hurricane, said Erin Gordon, who has water lapping at her deck after a good rain.
The fallen trees back up water enough that the creek has actually shifted course a little, she said, so that more of it is now regularly on her property.
She worries about a serious storm arriving before the creek is cleared, and the water she’s sure will flow into her home. She wonders whether people examining the creek will agree on a solution before there’s real damage from another storm.
“God bless them, I know they’re trying, but we’re going around in circles,” Gordon said.
Steve Patterson: (904) 359-4263