The first bands of serious rain swept through Dixie County last April.
The county bore the brunt of a stormy summer punctuated by Tropical Storm Elsa in July and lingering rainfall that lasted well until September. Local roads closed, residents evacuated from their properties and into shelters, and by October, around 200 houses held standing water.
The relentless rain tapered off by the winter months, but the damage was done.
A year after the influx of flooding began, Dixie County is still recovering from last year’s heavy rainfall. As the rainy season returns, residents and officials prepare for the possibility of a repeat of last year’s crisis.
Though storms soaked the entire county, low-lying pockets of land were especially susceptible to damage, according to Dixie County manager Duane Cannon. With higher water tables — or spaces between the surface soil and underlying sedimentary rock — and less elevation than areas on higher ground, water evaporated slowly from these lower properties.
Gregory “Benny” Benson lives near one of those low pockets. His house, which lies just off Route 98 in Old Town, doubles as Benny’s Barber Shop. He’s lived in Old Town for 35 years. He has worked as a hairdresser, out of his home, since retiring a decade ago.
Flood waters filled Benson’s front yard for four months, damaging the air ducts under his house and forcing him to shut down the shop. He reopened just over two months ago, when patrons could finally reach his front porch without swimming to it.
Benson, 73, said his property used to flood every 10 years, but as of late, standing water has become an annual inconvenience. County officials have attempted to alleviate the issue by changing the paths of water flow, but Benson said it’s only redirected the flooding, not prevented it.
“They’ve tried to help, I reckon,” he said. “But all that has taken water off of one area and put it in our other areas.”
While the Dixie County Board of Commissioners searches for long-term solutions, Dixie County Emergency Services seeks to provide relief with immediacy.
Lt. Mandy Lemmermen, the public information officer for the department, said rescue officials sprang into action when the first emergency calls came in last year. They drove out with a “highboy” — a pickup truck with high tires capable of driving through up to 8 feet of water — and a jon boat — an aluminum fishing boat with a flat bottom — to rescue stranded residents from their flooded homes.
Lemmermen said emergency services retrieved over 100 people from water-ridden roads and houses. Even now, as the flowing floods have slowed, she said the department prepares for water levels to reach their previous peaks this year.
“If we keep getting the rainstorms we’re getting and a couple of hurricanes, we’re definitely going to be right back to where we were.”
At its worst over the past year, the flooding in Dixie County warranted a state of emergency, which affords governments some freedom from typical regulations to organize relief efforts. The county opened a shelter with American Red Cross assistance for displaced residents and expedited rescue procedures.
Despite these important recovery efforts, nothing has been done to prevent future flooding. Even now, some roads are submerged in standing water and certain houses remain unreachable due to water damage.
Cannon, the county manager, said all they can do is wait.
“Unfortunately, you’re at a standstill,” he said. “You can’t really work on it and operate on it until the water recedes.”
While most county roads are dry and usable thanks to construction and clearing efforts, the road to full recovery still remains unclear.
Cannon said a complete rebuild could take anywhere from two to five years — and longer if future rainy seasons continue to complicate efforts. And that’s only if there’s the funding for it.
Long-term solutions would require significant spending, and Dixie County doesn’t yet qualify for federal funding. Most of the area has just a 1% annual chance of flooding: too low to qualify for relief grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. State funding is no guarantee either. Though Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, proposed a bill calling for appropriation funds to Dixie County, no action has been taken on the legislation since it was indefinitely postponed March 12.
In turn, some residents have taken matters into their own hands in adopting a simpler solution: digging. He plans to build a retention pond in his flooded backyard, which now looks more like a swamp than a wooded area. Benson said the pond is likely his only option to stall the unforgiving cycle set to begin again in coming weeks.
With hurricane season on the horizon, rainfall already rolling in and relief efforts up in the air, he said he’s bracing for this summer to be as wet as the last.