In the Hills of Santa Fe neighborhood in Gainesville, Florida, Mauricio Pena and his family use a canoe to get from the street to their front door. Hurricane Irma flooded the entrance to the neighborhood and the surrounding area as well. The damage is overwhelming.
The first three homes on the right side of the neighborhood were saturated with floodwater, which can be credited to the failed retention pond located on the Meadowbrook Golf Club’s golf course a few streets over.
The Pena family’s house along with a few neighbors is drowning in 6 feet of water as the county works to drain the flooded community.
“We were thinking we would just have some trees down during the storm,” Pena said. “But not anything like water under the house. I mean in the middle of the night everything was fine. I guess the pond over there (in the golf course) got so high, it just came out and came over here.”
Pena, his wife, Luisa, and son, Gianni, did not leave Alachua County during the evacuation and have no current plans to leave their house of 11 years.
“We’re damned if we do leave and we’re damned if we don’t,” Luisa Pena said. “If we leave now, then someone can break into our house very easily and take what little we have left.”
Their living room was stuffed with furniture and keepsakes while the walls were lined with bottles of water. A single battery-powered fan swiveled back and forth, parakeets chirping in the background. The family hasn’t had power for days and will not have power as long as the house remains flooded.
“I don’t know what the next step is,” she said. “Last night we had our first hot meal for dinner in days. And to be honest with you, it’s just been so hard to accept help.”
She added, “I’m a helper, not a helpee. I’ve been the helper my whole life. We just weren’t expecting this kind of damage and I’m still in shock.”
The family’s eight dogs and few tanks of reptiles were saved from the flooding, but the house is beginning to dilapidate.
“You can see our floors and walls have water damage, and some of our appliances are starting to rust,” Mauricio Pena said.
Alachua County Manager Mark Sexton said there is a team who is working very hard to drain the flooded areas around town. But there is still no definite count on how many neighborhoods have been flooded like the Hills of Santa Fe.
“Any low lying land next to a body of water here in the county will deal with flooding,” Sexton said. “Just with a normal rainfall those areas are greatly affected.”
After the hurricane passed, the county went door-knocking to see if there was any way it could relieve families.
“We knocked on about 200 doors around the Santa Fe River area,” he said. “We talk to 100 people face-to-face and 32 people evacuated after we made contact.”
The county is working to decrease flood waters, but there is no way to tell when the water will clear, Sexton said. The storm relief could take weeks to complete.
“If there are questions about hurricane relief, the county’s Facebook page is up-to-date with the latest news,” he said, “and 311 is available as well.”
A Stormwater Engineer for Alachua County Board of Commissioners James Link is helping to drain the pooled water on and around Meadowbrook Golf Club on Northwest 98 Place.
“My team is working to get the road cleared as fast as possible,” Link said. “There are isolated areas in this part of the city that flooded and we can only deal with one at a time.”
Alachua received help from surrounding counties in order to start the draining process. The families in these areas are safe, he said, and there is more than one way in and out of the surrounding neighborhood.
“This could take up to a week before anything is opened up again,” he said. “But we got some pumps from Suwannee County and we’re starting to drain the areas now.”
As the county works to lower floodwaters, the nearby areas idly watch; the Pena family is no exception.
The family alone lost three cars, keepsakes, vinyl albums and an entire bedroom, but amid the tragedy the Penas are keeping their spirits high.
“I can’t start getting this water out of my house because the city has to empty the retention pond first,” Mauricio Pena said. “It’s hard though because I was prepared to help other people and I ended up in the middle of it. But the water is going down little by little and I’m grateful for that.”
He continued, “We joke now that the canoe in our front yard is an Uber. I yell to my son to Uber me to the house, it’s funny really.”