When the dark clouds roll in, the Blanchards’ storm preparation team rolls out.
“Prepped, staged, deployed” is what the couple calls their flooding protection process.
It starts when clear skies fade away. That’s when Gainesville resident Mike Blanchard, 53, starts watching the storm radar with a vigilant eye. But he doesn’t waste much time before he starts barricading their home against flooding rainwater.
“We’re freaking out over rain,” said his wife, Donna Blanchard. “It’s no way to live.”
The pervasive threat of floods has pitted neighbor against neighbor – with Alachua County officials caught in between.
On the one hand, the Blanchards said their home is under a constant siege of water from swells to major storms.
But not far away, Julianna Witte said she has lost acres of mature trees at the hands of county workers who removed them to install a road and drainage easement to relieve the flooding.
The Blanchards live in a downstream neighborhood that sits at the bottom of a 480-acre watershed that starts at Newberry Road and flows all the way to their front door. But, Mike Blanchard said flooding continues long after the rainfall stops. The county estimates three other homes in the neighborhood also are affected.
As water levels rise waist-high, their faith drops.
“After you have flooded three times, you are under constant threat whenever it rains,” he said. The Blanchards said their neighborhood has flooded to waist-high three times: Hurricanes Francine, Irma and Elsa.
The Blanchards estimate they’ve spent $30,000 trying to fortify their home and yard. But they said no amount of sandbags or homemade barriers can solve the problem.
“People buy a tractor to mow their lawn,” Mike Blanchard said. “ I bought a tractor specifically to move sandbags.”
Their plight proves time equals money too.
“Everyone is spending gobs and gobs of money trying to solve the problem themselves,” he said. “We can’t wait for the storms to get bigger with climate change and get more rain and flood our houses.”
The couple never anticipated flooding to be such an issue. They said at the time they purchased their house in 2002, it was not in a flood zone.
Now, they call themselves “hostages” in the flooding situation.
“I had to move from Miami to the middle of Florida to experience flooding,” Mike Blanchard said.
After Hurricane Irma made landfall in 2017, he said they started interacting with the county to find a solution that alleviated the flooding. That is when Alachua County Public Works first decided the drainage easement located on Juliana Witte’s property could retain water. But the removal of acres of mature trees from her property prompted her emotional plea to the county to halt progress, and an ensuing legal complaint.
“People are being flooded downstream from this property,” said the Alachua County communications director, Mark Sexton. “That’s the single most important reason the county is doing this.”
Sexton emphasized the county’s responsibility to maintain the drainage easement to ease flooding. He said the county has agreed not to remove protected trees within the drainage easement, develop a replanting plan, install two new eight-foot gates at the easement entrance, and replace fencing with a like-kind to what is already used in the neighborhood.
“This is not a taking, or a violation of somebody’s rights, or destruction of a wetland,” he said. “The property will be restored once the project is done.”
The county plans to replant trees after the project’s completion.
Brian Kaufman, assistant public works director, said the county will make an effort to see the area remains aesthetically pleasing after the project’s completion.
“We’re willing to beautify the area with wildflowers and trees along the edge,” he said. “But we are going to continue to maintain the easement.”
He said county attorneys have filed a motion to dismiss the legal complaint filed by Witte and her lawyer, Jefferson Braswell. In the meantime, public works hired a geotechnical firm to determine how much sediment needs to be removed in the easement.
“The area was dedicated to the county for drainage purposes to protect the property and lives downstream,” Kaufman said. “We just need to clean that out so it will hold water.”
“I understand she has a sentimental attachment to the trees,” he said. “But we have a responsibility to keep the systems clean and to protect people’s houses, property and lives from flooding.”
Witte agrees — she said she wants to be a good neighbor despite feeling misled by the county.
“Of course, I wanted to be a good neighbor, and I still do,” she said. “I don’t want anyone’s home to flood…But we need people to be forthright about what they’re doing to make sure everyone is comfortable in the situation.”
She said she feels the county has been insensitive to her case, and that she has been sabotaged.
“It’s sickening,” she said. “I had no clue they were going to put in a lime rock road, bring in large equipment and do the devastation they did.”
She said she wants to find a solution that benefits both parties — one that alleviates the flooding but helps restore the ecosystem once present in her backyard.
“They’ve destroyed something beautiful,” she said. “The animals germane to this area are gone. It’s all been destroyed.”
The Blanchards are concerned about the derailed progress of maintaining the easement on Witte’s property. Donna Blanchard also grieved over all they have lost to flooding — including being unable to put new flooring inside their home.
“We don’t have flooring because we expect our house to go underwater someday,” she said.
Donna Blanchard said she developed a stress fracture and bone spur in her heel after she used a shovel this spring to dig up heaps of dirt to construct a homemade dam around their house.
“The labor of protecting this house is a nightmare, and we’re not getting younger,” she said.
They said their waiting has been the hardest part.
“It’s stressful,” Mike Blanchard said. “We are very anxious. It’s such a pitiful existence.”