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Decades-old maps don’t fully capture Central Florida’s flooding risk

A person holding piles of maps on top of a dark brown, wooden table.
Molly Duerig
Central Florida Public Media
Orange County Stormwater Management Chief Engineer Daniel Negron examines paper copies of the county’s official flood maps, which he says FEMA made widely available online in 2009. Before then, Negron says he and other staff would scan the paper flood maps into Orange County’s own, digitized system.

Flooding can be tough to predict. For Central Florida communities relying on official flood maps that are almost 20 years old, it can be even more difficult.

It’s business as usual today at The Breezeway Restaurant & Bar in Historic Downtown Sanford.

The place is filled with voices of patrons and laughter, almost drowning out the clinking of glasses and silverware. It’s the lunch rush. People are enjoying a drink with their Friday afternoon lunch, and General Manager Louis Quiñones is in the zone, weaving in and out of the place to ensure his staff gets through the busy shift.

Once things settle down a bit, Quiñones sits down for a moment to recall a day in September 2021, when he was called into the restaurant because flooding water came rushing in through the restaurant’s outdoor courtyard, where customers were dining.

Locals at the Breezeway are no strangers to the classic, Central Florida afternoon thunderstorm, as Quiñones puts it. What caught them by surprise was the flooding.

“That one was really, really weird because that one actually wasn't a hurricane; that was just a normal storm. It was almost – I don't want to say ‘flash flood,’ but that's basically what it was.”

A medium-skinned person standing behind a bar, holding a red soda fountain gun.
Credit Shane Murphy
Sanford is flooding more often these days, partly because the city’s 100-year-old stormwater infrastructure can’t keep up with demand from new development, according to Breezeway General Manager Louis Quiñones. “The amount of water that's coming in, it's like you're trying to dump a gallon through a straw. It's just too much,” Quiñones said.

A video of the event went viral, making national headlines. The video shows people propping their feet up on their tables to avoid the water, mostly laughing it off. Those good vibes, Quiñones says, were his favorite part.

“In this area, our mentality, our characteristic is, basically, just have fun with it,” he said. “You're not gonna be able to change the waters.”

But the behavior, flow, and patterns of water do change.

A year later, Hurricanes Ian and Nicole came through, but it was an unnamed tropical storm afterward that Quiñones says caused the most damage.

The Breezeway’s family of buildings dates back more than 100 years. The cobblestone on the iconic pub’s courtyard floor was laid out over a century ago.

“This is a very old building, so things like that do affect us big,” Quiñones said. “When you have deterioration, when you have the flood coming through, we're losing equipment, we're losing furniture, it does a lot to it.”

In Seminole County, rainfall totals are up 150% since 2011. Quiñones said he’s all too aware.

A line graph showing an increase in Seminole County’s rainfall totals since 2011.
Graph By Lillian Hernández Caraballo
Central Florida Public Media
NOAA data show a 150% increase in Seminole County’s rainfall totals since 2011.

“Flooding wasn't like this when I was here back in 2017. (...) Now, it's literally washing through where you're up to your calves, basically,” he said. “It's something new for us, so we're trying to figure out how to get through, especially the next coming years.”

Flooding can be tough to predict. For Central Florida communities relying on official flood maps that are almost 20 years old, it can be even more difficult.

A lot has changed in two decades, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) flood maps don’t fully account for all those changes: like development, stormwater infrastructure, and climate change.

But importantly, the scope of FEMA flood maps is limited to begin with. The maps are designed primarily to illustrate where one, specific type of flood is most likely to occur: the 100-year flood.

Also called a Special Flood Hazard Area or SFHA, the 100-year floodplain is an area with at least a 1% chance of flooding each year. But it’s a bit of a deceptive term, according to Seminole County Public Works Project Manager Jeff Sloman.

“What's called a 100-year flood, is defined as a storm event that, statistically, has a 1% chance of occurring every year. It's not a storm that occurs every hundred years,” Sloman said.

In fact, in the last five years alone, nearly half of U.S. counties experienced a flood event, according to FEMA. And nationally, 40% of flood insurance claims come from outside the 100-year floodplain.

“Binary views, the ‘in or out’ of a flood zone, can lead to the misconception that properties outside of the FEMA flood zone are safe from flooding,” a FEMA spokesperson wrote in an email to Central Florida Public Media. “There is no such thing as a ‘no-risk zone.’”

A light-skinned person sits at a table holding a mouse. They are looking at a TV screen on a wall to their left. A medium-skinned person wearing black headphones sits opposite at the table, holding a shotgun microphone on a pole up to the other person.
Molly Duerig
Central Florida Public Media
Seminole County Public Works Project Manager Jeff Sloman shows reporter Lillian Hernández Caraballo an example of what a basin study looks like, during an interview in late April for “Central Florida Seen & Heard: Rising Water.” Seminole is in the process of studying nearly all of its basins at once, Sloman said at that time.

Even as flooding gets worse, the state of the country’s flood mapping is incomplete, according to the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM). A dozen years after the enactment of a 2012 federal law requiring FEMA to develop and maintain adequate flood maps, only about a third of the nation has been mapped.

That’s partly because the process of gauging flood risk is lengthy and expensive, requiring lots of coordination between local, state and federal agencies. Although FEMA produces the actual flood maps, the federal agency relies on data collected at the local level.

In Seminole County, it’s the first time nearly all of the county’s drainage basins are being evaluated at once, Sloman said.

A still body of water with leaves on its surface. Behind it is a wall and greenery.
Molly Duerig
Central Florida Public Media
All three of Sanford’s drainage basins discharge into Lake Monroe, which is in itself a basin to the St. Johns River. A basin, or watershed, is an area that collects, stores, and transports water to a certain point; Sanford Public Works Manager Mike Cash describes it as “wherever that water [in Lake Monroe] arrives from.”

Along with helping to update flood maps, basin studies also help the county develop flood mitigation projects, which can be costly, Sloman said. Before this most recent undertaking, Seminole County hadn’t updated most of its basin studies in at least twenty years, per the county’s 2018 stormwater master plan.

Conducting a single basin study can take months. Once finished, the findings are submitted to FEMA.

“It takes probably over a year, from your initial submission until the maps are actually issued,” Sloman said.

And that’s just for one basin. There are 16 basins in Seminole County, 13 of which are either being studied now or were studied recently, Sloman said.

Meanwhile, it was 2007 when FEMA last updated Seminole County’s flood map, nearly 20 years ago. The area has since experienced a population and development boom: meaning less wetlands, more cement, and displaced water.

And that water still has to go somewhere.

A creek cutting between two grassy areas of land with trees on either side.
Molly Duerig
Central Florida Public Media
Mills Creek trickles through the Downtown Sanford area, eventually discharging into Lake Monroe. The Mills Creek basin is one of three basins in the Sanford area, according to Mike Cash, the city’s public works manager.

Based on findings so far from the ongoing basin studies, Seminole County’s highest-risk flood areas are growing “significantly” larger, Sloman said.

Along with the compounding factors of increased rainfall and rising water levels, Florida’s changing floodplains could be a recipe for disaster, Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe said during a recent visit to Central Florida.

“Not to use a metaphor that might be particularly apt for Florida, but it does seem like there's almost a perfect storm of pressures going on here,” McCabe said, speaking at a roundtable discussion on water resources organized by U.S. Representative Darren Soto, in Kissimmee.

At that meeting in late March, McCabe addressed what she characterized as shortcomings with the country’s current flood mapping system, saying it’s time to stop living in the past and address current — and future — water management challenges.

“Things are enshrined in policy and regulation and in people's brains: ‘Well, this is how we do it. And this is what the maps are, so just use those maps,’” McCabe said.

“But those maps are not gonna help us plan 5, 10 years and longer, down the road. We need to be able to use the best science and the best predictions as we go forward.”

A group of five people wearing suits sitting at a table.
Molly Duerig
Central Florida Public Media
EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe, second from right, speaks with local officials during a roundtable discussion on water resources at Buenaventura Lakes Library on March 27, 2024. (From left to right: Orange County Utilities Deputy Director Kerry Kates and Director Ed Torres; Toho Water Authority Executive Director Todd Swingle; and U.S. Rep. Darren Soto (D-09).

Mostly, FEMA flood maps are about flood insurance. Technically, they’re called Flood Insurance Rate Maps, or FIRMs, identifying the Special Flood Hazard Areas where flood insurance is required.

Florida alone accounts for nearly $8 billion in potential annual losses from flooding: more than anywhere else in the country, according to a study by First Street Foundation.

It’s also the #4 state for Severe Repetitive Loss Properties, or SRLPS: the most flood-prone structures covered by insurance, flooding about 5 times each, on average, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

More than 3,550 SRLPs are in Florida, and per NRDC, 12% are outside the 100-year floodplain. Whether in or out of the floodplain, officials with FEMA and local governments alike strongly recommend flood insurance for nearly everyone in Florida.

“If you're not in the floodplain, and you think there's any chance in the world that your house might flood, you'd better carry flood insurance,” said Sanford Public Works Manager Mike Cash.

A born and raised Sanford resident himself, Cash says the area floods more now than it did when he was growing up. That’s why Cash got the city involved with FEMA’s Community Rating System, or CRS, about seven years ago, he said.

The voluntary, point-based CRS program grades local governments based on what they do to reduce flood risk. In exchange, community members get discounts on flood insurance: the better a municipality’s score, the bigger the discount.

Right now, Seminole County is ranked CRS Class 6, translating to a 20% discount on flood insurance. Sanford, Class 7, gets 15%.

Florida has some of the highest flood insurance premiums in the nation, with annual rates ranging from $541 in lower-risk zones to $2,472 in higher-risk zones, according to FEMA data.

A light-skinned person sitting at a table and typing on a laptop.
Molly Duerig
Central Florida Public Media
Osceola County Certified Floodplain Manager and Engineer II Carlos Castro uses the county’s online flood mapping tool to look for Special Flood Hazard Areas, where flooding is most likely. In 2021, Osceola adopted a plan to identify “repetitive loss properties” in the county, and possibly buy them out.

Sanford has produced prior basin studies of its own, like Seminole County’s. But there aren’t any new ones in the works right now, Cash said.

“We do our best to track the areas that we know we have issues with,” Cash said. “We don’t have the money for that kind of thing, like the county does.”

Later this year, though, Sanford commissioners could approve a budget that includes a proposed master drainage plan for the next 20 years, Cash said. The plan would help Sanford kickstart some new basin studies.

Meanwhile, Sanford is working on several drainage projects to bring long-term improvements to the downtown area, Cash said.

Right now, there are three major drainage basins in the downtown area, all connecting to Lake Monroe. The Georgetown Project currently underway will create a fourth basin, to reduce demand on the existing Pump Branch drainage system.

That Pump Branch system includes some stormwater pipes that are more than a century old, according to Cash. Originally, consultants just wanted to make repairs to the system, but Cash says the city decided a longer-term solution would be worth the investment.

“After analysis, we realized, well, that's just additional patchwork, and we're probably gonna end up having to do it again in 20 years,” Cash said.

The hope is for this project to help businesses downtown, like The Breezeway. But depending on available funding, the Georgetown Project could take 7 to 10 years to complete, according to Cash.

Still, progress is happening, albeit gradually. Engineers already connected Sanford’s new Georgetown drainage system to Lake Monroe, and the goal is to tie in the rest of the system within the next couple months, Cash said in mid-May.

“They're behind schedule, but it's still moving pretty well, considering every time you excavate something out in the city of Sanford, you find something you didn't know was gonna be there,” Cash said. “The city is so old; people buried things and never recorded it.”

Cash says on these kinds of projects, Sanford’s public works team has to make changes as they go, adjusting for existing water, sewer and electric infrastructure. It’s just one of the many different kinds of variables that can complicate flooding predictions.

“Flooding … It doesn’t follow the rules, let’s put it that way,” Cash said.

Black metal chairs and tables on a patio. At each table is an umbrella.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo
Central Florida Public Media
The Breezeway’s patio, a popular Sanford gathering spot, flooded quickly during an intense storm in September 2021. “By the time the storm reached downtown, the pipes were already full and couldn't take any more water,” said Sanford’s Public Works Manager Mike Cash.

At the iconic, comfort spot in Downtown Sanford, staff at the Breezeway Restaurant are hoping for the best.

“I love, love this place. I honestly do,” Quiñones said. “Everybody here knows everybody. We’re a family.”

Updating flood maps costs local governments time and money. But ultimately, many community members and businesses don’t have time to wait.

“If we shut down? That's one thing I try not to think about,” Quiñones said. “Let’s just hope it never comes to that.”

For now, they’re just making the best of a bad situation they barely understand. And Quiñones says if another flood comes, they’ll be ready.

“We have prepared, actually,” Quiñones said. “Basically, what’s gonna happen is: we’re gonna have a hurricane party. We're gonna hang out, we're gonna drink. We're gonna get through it, just like all the other years.”

Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.

Copyright 2024 Central Florida Public Media

Molly Duerig
Lillian Hernández Caraballo