Residents express frustration with continued flooding issues

CHIPLEY – Frustrated Washington County residents gathered at the Sand Hills Baptist Church in Chipley Monday night for a community meeting called by the Board of Commissioners to address the ongoing flooding issues in the southern portion of Washington County after experiencing ongoing historic water table levels.

In addition to county officials, representatives were present from the Florida Division of Emergency Management, Northwest Florida Water Management District Congressman Neal Dunn’s office, and Senator George Gainer’s office.

Residents say the problem has only gotten worse since Hurricane Michael, with some saying it has been exacerbated by the four-laning of Highway 77 and the number of trees that have been cut down in recent years by Northwest Florida Water Management District (NWFMD).

“Northwest Florida [Water] Management has clear cut thousands of acres and is continuing to cut thousands of acres every year,” said resident David Rich. “I understand you guys hate sand pines; I hate them, too, but could we maybe look at a moratorium on cutting trees around until we figure out what is causing all this tremendous flooding, where it hasn’t flooded like this before in anybody’s memory who is alive today?”

Among chief concerns was the ability of emergency responders being able to reach home in case of an emergency, notably on Rolling Pines Road, Childers Road, and Radcliff Circle.

“Radcliff Circle is a horseshoe that begins and ends on Rolling Pines Road,” said resident Ila Kelley. “If Radcliff doesn’t get fixed soon, we will have no way in or out.”

The county has been working to provide relief to residents, notably through $6 million in FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance Grants, which allows the county to purchase qualifying properties for their pre-hurricane values. Those properties would then be turned into permanent green-spaces.

“When we were going into the buyout program, we know it would be a long process, up to five years,” said County Commission Chairman Tray Hawkins. “But we are starting to see some progress and hope to see more success.”

In all, 23 residents applied for and qualified for the program, with the county closing its first two purchases on Friday. 

Although that program is now closed, the county says it hopes to help residents apply for a similar buyout through two other federal programs, Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) and the Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) programs.

Nicole Smith, who serves as 1st Congressional District Director of Constituent Services, says residents have the “full support” of Congressman Neal Dunn’s office.

“[Congressman Dunn] is completely committed to supporting these applications once they are submitted to the state and at the federal level,” said Smith. “We have supported Washington County through the [Hurricane Michael] recovery process and the dollars that have been allocated to the Florida Department of Emergency Management … I’m here, we’ve been here, and we will continue to be here.”

Several residents expressed additional frustration at what they feel has been a lack of communication between the county and the public.

Hawkins advised that the county would add additional mediums of communication to the existing methods of their website and local newspaper to include posting on social media and apps such as “Next Door.”

“If any of you have any questions at all, all of our phone numbers are listed on the website,” said Hawkins. “I encourage you to give us a call, and we will do our best to get the information you need. We just ask that you be patient as we work through the long stages of the FEMA buyout program and help launch the others.”