How the Central Florida Expressway Authority (accidentally) saved an east Winter Garden neighborhood
Prep for the SR 429 expansion kept the E. Bay Street area from flooding out during Hurricane Ian.
On Friday, as kids rode their bikes around Zander Park in east Winter Garden and adults cleared away the debris that Hurricane Ian left behind, the Dunbar Street canal was still brimming with storm water. An industrial pump from Orange County chugged away. But it was clear that, at some point, as the Category 1 hurricane plowed across the county, the canal had overflowed its banks. Josephine Bowler’s side yard, now a sodden swamp, was more than enough evidence.
Bowler lives at the very end of Dunbar Street, across from the canal, next to a wide swath of undeveloped land. She’s spotted snakes, an alligator and even a beaver in that canal. A screened vestibule prevents the wildlife from camping outside her front door.
Bowler’s home flooded during Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne in 2004, and she was “terrified” that Hurricane Ian would bring more flooding. “This house in years past, oh my God, it was bad. Real bad. There was so much water, it was like a river,” she said in an interview. She remembers wading through water to get out of her house after the 2004 hurricanes. “We needed a boat,” she said.
During Hurricane Ian, water came “almost to the house.”
But this time her home stayed dry.
“I expected it to be way more than it was. I really did,” said Bowler. “I expected it to be really bad, but it wasn’t, thank God.”
Flooding is a longstanding problem in east Winter Garden where neighborhoods have ditches gouged into swales for drainage, where sidewalks usually would be. For decades residents of this historically Black community have tried to sound the alarm about fetid standing water and health hazards without much action from Orange County. The county still has jurisdiction over the area’s storm water management system. The last enclave was annexed by Winter Garden in February, but part of the agreement was that the county would foot the bill for re-configuring the storm water system. (Current plans call for replacing the open drainage system in place with a closed system of concrete inlets and pipes.)
Yet, even as Hurricane Ian left behind several small lakes and boggy yards in east Winter Garden, the unexpectedly lower water levels may be related to the Central Florida Expressway (CSX) expansion project for State Road 429. The highway runs past the eastern edge of the neighborhood. One of CSX’s corridor-widening construction sites sits at the end of E. Bay Street where a wide pool of storm water is slowly receding from a light blue manufactured home. Reginald, the homeowner who did not want to give his last name, said water came up to the foundation. “It was high. It was really high,” he said.
Ebony Rivera lives a few doors down. She told VoxPopuli that she talked with a CSX project manager who was in the area after the hurricane, assessing damage to the construction site. She said that he told her, “‘We would have completely flooded out down here if they would not have drained the [retention] pond.’
“I’m trying to figure how our entire community depends on that one pond. But they drained it out in preparation of that storm. I think they only did that because they’re working down there on the CFX project for the 429,” she said.
The retention pond that Rivera is referring to is located on Story Road between the Florida Auto Mall and State Road 429. As Jim Monahan, Winter Garden’s city engineer, explained in an email to VoxPopuli, “That pond and the E. Bay area have a common discharge ditch that goes under the 429 and eventually to Lake Lotta in Ocoee.”
Rivera sees a difference. Her backyard is mushy and still has a small lake in it, but she said that’s nothing compared to the water she and her husband had to deal with after Hurricane Irma. “We completely flooded out in 2017 with Hurricane Irma.”
According to CSX, the retention pond had been drained well before Hurricane Ian was even on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s radar.
“The retention pond … was drained some time ago to help facilitate construction on the SR 429 widening project, not recently for hurricane preparations,” CSX spokesperson Brian Hutchings wrote in an email.
“To widen the expressway requires room within which to work (for the machines to operate and for the materials to be placed, plus you want to operate in fairly dry conditions if at all possible). So draining the retention pond provided them the necessary room within which to perform the widening work,” he added.
As for the reduced flooding in east Winter Garden? One could say it was a lucky side benefit, Hutchings said.