By Joan Meiners | December 15, 2017
In the witching hour of Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma hit Gainesville as a Category 1 storm. Wind gusts up to 90 mph uprooted trunks and felled branches across the Tree City. By morning, at least 36 percent of Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) customers, more than 30,000 homes, were out of power. Then the water began to rise.
At a bend in a dirt road off SE 35th Street, the Williams family sat in the dark. Since they rely on a well for water, losing power to run the pump also meant losing water for drinking, washing and flushing the toilet.
Gainesville native David Williams, 62, is a disabled veteran who enlisted in the Army voluntarily right after high school during the Vietnam era. He felt proud to serve his country, and it sounded better than “working the fields.” Awaiting deployment in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1975, the war ended and he was instead sent home to Gainesville. He worked for Veterans Affairs (VA) for 10 years before starting a family and settling into work as a landscaper. Even today, with two neck and back surgeries and a recent heart attack, Williams exudes pride in having served. “If I had to go back, I go back.”
Williams and his partner of eight years, Diane Garrison, live on a fixed disability income with his two adult sons, David Jr., who is currently unemployed, and Justin, who works for Perry Roofing Contractors. A year and a half ago –15 months before Irma – Williams applied to the VA for funds to update his home’s electrical wiring.
The night Irma hit, Justin Williams, 30, remembers the family sitting inside praying the roof would hold. “Something told me to go get my dog [from the dog house outside]. It was night and crazy out there, but I did. That tree fell and missed my dog house by this much.” As he sits on the curb relaying the story, just home from roofing work in a bright orange T-shirt and black shorts, Justin holds up his thumb and index finger about an inch apart.
The large oak spared Justin’s 11-month-old blue pit, Diamond. But it knocked the utility connection off the Williams’ northern eaves, disconnecting the entire house from the grid. For days, then weeks, and ultimately what they and their neighbors say was two long months without power or running water, the family waited in the summer heat during the day, and the silent dark at night.
Irma cast thousands of Gainesville families into darkness and flooding, but not indiscriminately. An analysis of public records for 15,000 addresses that experienced at least one full day of power loss after Irma shows a statistically significant, inverse relationship between the duration of outage and the county-assessed value of those properties.
While the average $2 million property was without power for 1.6 days, the average $200,000 property was reconnected after 2.7 days. The average $20,000 property was out of power for 4.4 days.
The records indicate these lower-valued properties are also more likely to be on well water, like the Williamses, meaning that many of the poorest residents were also without running water while they waited almost three times as long for power to be restored. Three miles from the Williams home, Lincoln Middle School opened up its gymnasium so that local residents could come shower, use the bathroom and pick up industrial-sized packs of bottled water, along with food and other necessities. Lines were still forming nearly a week after the storm.
For David Williams Sr. and Diane, the week turned to weeks. They collected drinking water and used the bathroom at a local park during the day. They walked to Diane’s friend’s house about a half mile away for meals, making sure to be home by nightfall so they weren’t out after dark. They had flashlights, but no batteries. “I can’t afford no batteries,” Williams said. As their food rotted in the fridge, the water remaining in the bathroom pipes started seeping into the drywall. Then, the groundwater that saturates this neighborhood started seeping in, too.
Gainesville’s water table is highest in the southeast corner of town, the last stop for stormwater’s tour through cultivated lands before the city’s floodplain drains to the alligators and ibis of 21,000-acre Paynes Prairie State Preserve. Flooded by heavy rains and deemed uninhabitable by white settlers in 1871, the area was plied by boats when wet and grazed by cattle when dry, always just a storm away from being reclaimed by the swamp. After Hurricane Irma, the resurgence of old ‘Lake Alachua’ closed U.S. 441 through Paynes Prairie into late October.
Jennifer McElroy, supervising utility engineer at GRU, described the aftermath of Irma as a “200-year flood,” with the deluge that would re-form Lake Alachua falling on ground already saturated by record-setting summer rains. Twenty-four billion gallons of stormwater poured into GRU’s wastewater system in the 24 hours following Irma, some of it bubbling back up onto the streets or even into unlucky residents’ homes as a mixture of sewage and rain water. Of GRU’s 170 wastewater lift stations, 92 lost power. One-hundred and sixty-eight employees worked around the clock answering phones and responding to calls.
Trace the underground web of pipe structure through Gainesville, and you will unearth the history of a town. “Seventy years ago, they did not have PVC pipe material, today’s standard,” McElroy explains. Water pipes made with polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, are found in the newer developments in the northwest and southwest, and wherever GRU has recently repaired waterline leaks and replaced offending pipes. Older neighborhoods on the city’s east side, predominately inhabited by lower-income and minority residents, have pipes made of brittle polybutylene, or galvanized steel, which over time become “tuberculated,” or clogged by metals from the water clinging to the inside of the pipe like a choked artery overdue for a bypass.
Dusting off Gainesville’s more recent past, you would discover more than half of GRU’s electric power lines also buried, also overwhelmingly in the newer, wealthier, whiter, west side of town. At $18 a foot, underground power cables are more expensive to buy, install and maintain than standard aboveground power lines that run about $1.40 a foot and can last four times as long. As long as they don’t get taken out by a tree.
Two hundred yards down the sloped dirt road from the Williamses, arborist Jonathan Colburn prepared his girlfriend’s home for Irma’s blow, and kept a watchful eye out for their elderly neighbors. He checked the trees around the house, stocked up on food and bottled water, and filled the washing machine from the well to ensure they would have water to flush the toilets if the power went out. Less trusting of Gainesville’s canopy, his girlfriend weathered the storm with her father in a bunker a couple of hours away in Brooksville. The home is on an above-ground power line separate from the one knocked down at the Williams house, but Colburn was still out of power for three days, and “absolutely sick of it by the end.”
A higher water table and more saturated soils can result in trees growing shallow, less stable roots, a perfect storm for outages on the east side of town where above-ground power lines tangle with sprawling oak limbs. “The capacity of soils to drain or retain water dumped by a hurricane are very local issues, that, particularly for an arborist, involve just the space around each tree,” Colburn explains. As the founder and CEO of Nyssa Ecological, Colburn worked 16-hour days responding to calls about precarious trees around town for a week before and after Irma, and scaled back to nine or ten-hour days doing storm cleanup after that. Even still, many of Gainesville’s power outages were caused by trunks and branches succumbing to hurricane winds.
Across the road in a $900 renovated 1968 airstream, Josh, a 39-year-old carpenter who declined to give his last name, is not hooked up to city power. Josh moved to Gainesville from Columbus, Ohio, earlier this year and installed a power pole on his property as one of his first home improvements, only to find out that GRU does not issue permits to properties less than half an acre. So instead of being hooked up to the municipal utility, Josh spends $40-50 a month on gasoline to power his 240-watt generator. He weathered his first hurricane with cheer, and was able to offer the only hot shower in the area to his new neighbors after the storm. Neither Josh nor Colburn, however, were aware that in the dark Williams home just a half block away, their elderly neighbors were without flashlight batteries or access to water.
The majority of Gainesville homes are connected to GRU’s pressurized water system and never lost water even when they lost power during Irma. Most residents took hot showers powered by gas water heaters, and had radically different storm experiences than the Williams family.
Near SW 16th Avenue and 13th Street, which overtook Main Street as a central thoroughfare when Gainesville expanded west, Dr. Larry Cook was out of power for five days after Irma felled a large oak at his complex near campus. The amiable 68-year-old professor of ethics and business courses at the University of Florida’s Dental School, said he “didn’t worry about it” at first. On Sunday night after Irma had passed, he fired up the generator from his football tailgating trailer and propped it at the door of his residence to power his freezer of wild game steaks, his TV, Wi-Fi and fan. The trailer, stocked with sodas, beer, bottled water and LED flashlights, turned out to be an ideal hurricane-supply cache.
By Tuesday, however, he was “pissed that nobody from GRU was out looking at that oak.” He packed his bags and went to stay with his friend and dental school colleague Dr. Marc Ottenga in downtown’s The Continuum, which never lost power.
“Every night was a man-cave party. Marc makes the best dag-gone dirty martinis you ever had. It was a ton of fun, believe it or not.”
Cook says he well knows how lucky he and Ottenga were, particularly watching the grim reality play out in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Considering local damage, Cook reflects on one good thing Irma brought to Gainesville: “At a time when our nation is the most divided I’ve ever seen it, it was nice to see neighbors pitching in to help each other out after the storm.”
It was November when GRU finally came out and reattached the electrical wiring to the Williamses’ house, for a fee of $192. Having to retrofit older equipment to stay within the family’s budget may have delayed the process. The Williams say their water is still not reliable.
A couple weeks ago, David Williams Sr. opened the mailbox to find an official-looking letter with a return address from Veterans Affairs. It was a notification to say his application – the one he put in 18 months ago for funds to update the electrical wiring in his home – was being processed.
It offered no details on whether funds would be awarded, or when they might arrive.
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