A Gainesville community tethered by frustration stands resilient against repeated flooding
Pamela O’Steen, a 62-year-old resident of the Hills of Santa Fe neighborhood in northwest Gainesville, has seen her house flood seven times since she moved there in 2000.
“Every time it rains, I pray,” O’Steen said.
Residents like O’Steen say they feel helpless and forgotten as they continue to suffer from relentless flooding.
For these homeowners, repairing the damages from the latest flood means watching their efforts get washed away in the next downpour.
In O’Steen’s case, the bottom two feet of the walls throughout her entire house had to be removed due to water damage, exposing a skeleton of pipes, wires and wood beams.
Industrial dehumidifiers hummed in each room, and sandbags lined the windows and doors.
“You’re constantly reminded of it every time you go home,” O’Steen said.
This is the second time she’s had to tear out her walls. She had just finished replacing them the first time when, two months later, another flood forced her to redo them all over again.
This process will take another two to three months to complete.
“Your life comes to a standstill,” said Debbie Rost, 66, O’Steen’s friend who lives in the same house. “It makes you so depressed.”
Hills of Santa Fe, a quiet, middle-class suburb home to mostly families and retirees, has had a legacy of flooding for decades. The first major flood was in 2004, what residents dubbed a “once-in-a-hundred-year flood,” which inundated people’s houses and turned the streets into what multiple residents have referred to as “white water rapids.”
Another keystone in the Hills’ flooding history was Hurricane Irma in 2017, when water levels reached so high that some escaped their homes via canoe.
In 2021, Alachua County installed and upgraded water pumps across the county, with officials arguing they are doing their best.
Alachua County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler, whose district includes Hills of Santa Fe, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from WUFT News.
The stormwater pumps were installed in high-risk areas throughout western Gainesville, including the Hills of Santa Fe.
In the last week of August, the pumps received their first major test as west Gainesville experienced 6.6 inches of rainfall, according to St. Johns River Water Management District.
Houses still flooded. Lawns became swamps.
The new pumps can clear the road entering the Hills in three hours, but O’Steen and Rost said they still struggle with the water pooling at their property.
As the name implies, the neighborhood is built on a hill that descends towards its only entrance, which leads to Northwest 98th Street. The topography of the Hills causes rainwater to naturally collect by those living around the entrance.
Rost explained that once the residents at higher elevations could come and go, those at the base of the neighborhood where they live received less attention.
“They just drive by and look,” Rost said. “I get it — they’re not the ones affected – they just want to drive out of the neighborhood.”
O’Steen and Rost said they don’t want to be forgotten by their uphill neighbors, but more so by the county. Vying for governmental relief has been an on-going battle, they said.
Alachua County officials through their website blamed the continued flooding at Hills of Santa Fe on inadequate stormwater infrastructure installed decades ago.
Throughout the years, O’Steen has repeatedly called the county for aid when her house floods, and it wasn’t until last year when the county underwent the pumps project.
Now with the pumps installed, it’s all a matter of turning them on.
While the pumps alleviate property damage and drain the roads, they were initially installed to be manually operated, meaning that a county official needed to turn them on.
Earlier this month, a float system was added to the main pump that activates it when water levels in the well reach 70 inches.
After heavy rainfall on Sept. 9, homeowner Luisa Peña, 56, sent her son to check on the pumps to see if they were running.
“I’m so traumatized by flooding that I want to be proactive,” Peña wrote in an email to the county.
Around 9 p.m., two officials in a county truck pulled up to check the pumps’ water levels and left without turning them on, Peña said.
On Sept. 10, Peña emailed the county requesting an explanation. She was told that at about 9:45 a.m. that day, Stormwater Division Supervisor William Dampier did turn the main pump on at low pressure.
The pump was set on low so the pumps did not suck in too much air and damage the pumping system, said Public Works Director Ramon Gavarrete.
“Our goal is to minimize the flooding,” Gavarrete said. “I believe it’s been a success.”
Right now, he said, the county is focusing on tweaking the system.
“I know it wasn’t a fool-proof solution – I’m well aware of that,” Peña said. But Peña and her neighbors are also concerned about the water that comes from the overflowing retention ponds of neighboring Ellis Park and the runoff from 23West Apartments across the street.
23West Apartments was constructed in 2018 on what was previously wetland forest that naturally retained rainwater.
Homeowner Jorge Arango, 34, is worried that Hills of Santa Fe is now the destination for flood water coming from Ellis Park to the south, Meadowbrook Golf Course to the north and 23West to the west,
“We’re the dumping ground,” he said.
Arango said that the pumps are just a Band-Aid on the problem, that the real issue lies in the drainage system. With how quickly the retention ponds fill up with water, “the pumps won’t be able to keep up,” Arango said.
Arango moved into the neighborhood in 2020 and said he hopes to raise his infant daughter there, but he has apprehensions. The stress of raising a family in a house known to flood can be overwhelming, he said.
Peña, who has lived in her house for 16 years, must not only find somewhere else for her kids to stay when it floods, but must also find special accommodations for her mother with dementia.
Peña said that each time her mother is displaced, it makes her dementia worse.
“Due to the stress, it’s like I’ve seen her age 10 years,” Peña said.
Peña has considered moving, but for many in her situation, selling is not an option.
“I would lose a lot,” Peña said. “Besides, I love my house. I love the trees and windows and it’s affordable. I shouldn’t have to move.”
Many residents said that they would not only lose out on their investments if they sold but that selling would itself be a challenge.
“There’s no chance we can sell these houses,” said homeowner Paul Misleh, 71.
Because of the obstacles to selling, many residents said they feel trapped by the situation. The only thing they can do is to be there for one another.
When O’Steen and Rost’s house flooded in late August, a dozen neighbors rushed to their aid with brooms and buckets to shovel out the torrents of water.
But brooms are not a long-term solution.
As Rost took a break from repairs, she sat on her porch and reflected on all they had endured in the last few months.
“It’s just hit after hit after hit,” Rost said, tears welling in her eyes. “I can’t even tell you how much I’ve thrown away.”
Holding back her own tears, O’Steen looked to her friend and said, “Now don’t you start crying.”
New pumps are a step in the right direction for combating the flooding in Hills of Santa Fe, but many are still suffering long after the rains subside.
A common sentiment among residents is that they hope they will not be forgotten by their community and county leaders.
“We’re not asking for anything crazy,” Arango said, “just to live in our homes.”