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Parts of Dixie County remain underwater after weeks, months

Published: Sep. 20, 2018 at 5:55 PM EDT
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Groundwater flooding in Dixie County has forced residents out of their homes and, in some cases, even brought in the Red Cross.

The county is chalking up the unusual flooding to excessive amounts of rainfall this year. While county officials have called the rainfall and subsequent flooding "unprecedented," residents are calling it "unbearable."

Lori Willis lives off N.E. 434th St. in Old Town. Her daily commute is anything but typical. She relies on an ATV to get from her front door to her vehicles.

"At 5 o'clock in the morning, my husband and I drive the four-wheeler out to pick up children that I babysit," Willis said. "We're back in the mud again at 7:30 to take our child to school, we're back in the mud again at 1:30 in the afternoon to pick our child up from school."

At its worst, Lori had more than a foot of water at her doorstep.

"We're losing so much and it's you know, right under the mud," Willis said.

Dixie County Emergency Management officials say Dixie has seen unprecedented rainfall, from 50 to 60 inches between January and September.

"We haven't seen water like this in 30, 40, I mean some people even say 50 years that we haven't seen water in some of these areas," said Division Chief of Emergency Management Scott Garner.

Typically dry properties have seen groundwater sitting for weeks, and even months.

"We're exhausted. Mentally, physically, emotionally, it's taking its toll on us as well as hundreds of other residents in Dixie County," Willis said. "We all need help."

To find out why the water won't leave, we spoke to Fay Baird, a senior hydrologist with the Suwannee River Water Management Disctrict.

"These areas are completely saturated with water and they're just not accepting any more water," Baird said. "The soils won't take anymore, the sinkholes are flooded and therefore can't take any more water."

Baird says the Floridan Aquifer has become saturated with water, meaning the water that would typically find its way into the aquifer through sinkholes now has nowhere to go.

"In general, not just Dixie County but all our coastal counties have had very heavy rainfall not only for just one month, but three, four, five months," Baird said. "Really, going back to last year."

Baird said groundwater flooding has also been seen in Taylor, Bradford and parts of Alachua County.

"Usually the aquifer fills up through percolation in the ground and through sinkholes," Baird said. "In the Suwannee River Water Management District, the Floridan Aquifer is very close to the land surface, and in some places it basically is the land surface."

Lori's neighborhood is not the only suffering from the flood waters. South of Highway 19, homes along Highway 55A have seen sitting water.

TV20 went to the area around S.E. 615th St. and caught up with Justin Keen as he was fishing off his front porch.

Keen had a bite on his line.

"He spit it out," Keen said. "He done spit it out!"

With much of the property underwater, Keen and his family have not been able to use the bathroom for months, he said.

Keen, like other residents in the area, believes the flooding is tied to the clearing of land off Hwy. 55A for peanut fields. The residents TV20 spoke with believe land elevation was changed when the peanut fields were planted, and that natural canals were filled.

"I know for a fact there was three canals back there," Keen said. "Main canals. None of the rock pits is there, none of the flats is there. Nothing."

TV20 met with Chastity and Scott Sutherland, who live in a house off 55A directly north of the peanut field and a few blocks down from Keen.

Like Justin and Lori, the Sutherland's property is underwater.

"The whole backyard is just submerged," Chastity said. "It's a pond."

Their neighbors are dealing with the same issue. Erin Landrum lives nextdoor, and is still parking her vehicle right off the street because the ground in her yard is too soft to drive on.

"I want the county to come out and do something in order to get this water out of here," Landrum said. "Whether they have to dig ditches up and down through peoples yards, I don't care. It just needs to go."

Chastity and Scott, along with their neighbors, are calling for more maintenance of ditches and culverts, as well as for digging on the peanut fields.

The fields are owned by Sanchez Farms, LLC. Herman and Virginia Sanchez agreed to speak with TV20 to refute the claims residents are making.

"We've lost hundreds of thousands of dollars," Virginia said. "We want the water too."

Virginia serves on the board of the Suwannee River Water Management District. She says that agriculture is an easy target, and that no canals were filled and elevation was not changed.

Instead, Sanchez turned the fault on homeowners off Hwy. 55A. She said the parcels they are living on should have never been developed.

"They need to take responsibility for building in a bowl," Virginia said.

Both the Sanchez's and the residents who feel the peanut fields are at fault agree that more needs to be done to maintain irrigation systems like culverts and ditches.

"They need to fix it. This is a 'we' problem here," Chastity said. "I mean the county has to get up and go to work. They've shown a little effort here since it took chaos to get it done."

The Sanchez's say they want state law to change so that if a local government, like Dixie County, were to dig on private property, the landowners would not be responsible for any damage to other properties.

TV20 spoke with State Representative Chuck Clemons to get his perspective on the issue.

"All parties need to be protected, but we do need to provide as seamless of a service to the constituents, the people that actually live in those low-lying areas, as possible," Clemons said.

Clemons says the state is coordinating with the county government to address the issue.

"Rural counties like Dixie and Gilchrist Counties have a very small staff because they have a very small population," Clemons said. "So the subject matter expertise is just not there in the staffs of those respective counties."

Clemons says the role of Suwannee River Water Management District is to provide subject matter expertise and advise the county government.

On Thursday, TV20 spoke with Dixie County officials about updates to the flooding issue. Officials said they are still reaching out to landowners about flood mitigation through digging.

One official TV20 spoke with said the water is receding in many parts of the county as the weather dries out.

Meanwhile, Scott and Chastity Sutherland are continuing to push to hold Sanchez Farms responsible for the flooding in their area.

"The environment is completely changed," Scott said. "Regardless of who's at fault or who's to blame, the environment is completely changed."

Just north of Highway 19, Lori Willis is still waiting for any kind of solution.

"If your home was going underwater, you would want to swim too," she said. "You would want to swim, you would want to get out of it, you would want someone to throw you a lifeline."

Many of her neighbors' homes are facing the same problems she is.

"I need to know that I have a place to lay my head every night," Willis said. "A place to wake up to start my workday the next day."