When Hurricane Irma ripped through the Florida coast on Sunday September 10, it destroyed homes, downed trees, and displaced many people. The storm also shed light on one of the most overlooked problems with U.S. urban real estate, which is that almost always it is the poor who occupy properties in floodplains. Although the eye of Hurricane Irma only got as close as 70 miles away to Jacksonville, poor infrastructure caused the city to retain flood water and has left many residents clearing their things out of moldy homes. Through research of public documents and interviews with former city officials as well as engineers, the Tamps Bay Times found that city plans to fix Jacksonville’s infrastructure problems were left floating by local leaders. Those infrastructure problems are the reason why Jacksonville was and has been unnecessarily vulnerable to long lasting water retention, such as what occurred after Hurricane Irma.
“I don’t think many people thought they’d get all the flooding that they got,” said Governor Rick Scott. For Jacksonville resident William Andralliski this was devastatingly true. He had moved to Jacksonville following another storm to find construction work, but not long after he moved Hurricane Irma came and took a huge part of his life away. “Irma came and washed it all away– all of our birth certificates, pictures, its like we don’t even exist.” There is a long history in Jacksonville of stories just like Andralliski’s, and it is absolutely necessary that everything be done by the city to help its most vulnerable residents.
It’s clear that since a 1969 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report, local officials and state representatives knew neighborhoods in Jacksonville would flood in the occurrence of a major storm, and nothing was done to prevent it. “I think everybody, including me, sorta passed the buck,” said John Delaney Jacksonville’s mayor from 1995 to 2003. While those in charge of the city knew the dangers residents were in, the residents themselves were not always aware they lived in floodplains and chose their neighborhoods because of the affordability. Many neighborhoods such as those near the Ribault River gave opportunities to low income families in the 1970s to own a home, and many of the people in those families still live in those communities. The homes built in the ‘70s were also created before drainage systems and retention ponds became required by law, which came shortly after in the ‘80s. Grand Park Community Association president Lloyd Washington said that, “A lot of these people just did not know they were in flood plains. A lot of them didn’t have flood insurance because they just did not know.” Luckily for Grand Park they did receive the proper underground drainage systems, but that only came after 150 residents confronted Mayor Tommy Hazouri at a community meeting, and it took the city 14 years to complete the project.
Although Hurricane Irma touched down in Florida months ago, many people in Jacksonville are still struggling to rebuild their lives. As climate change causes sea levels to rise and increases the occurrences of storms like Irma, something must be done to protect the people of Jacksonville and all cities like it. The city of Jacksonville will need to be invested in so that the proper infrastructure can be provided to residents that deserve a safe place to live. The fight for better infrastructure in Jacksonville has spanned generations, and with each generation it is the poor and mostly black communities which have been structurally left behind. Former historian in residence for the city of Jacksonville James B. Crooks said that, “the tendency has been to put money into the predominately white suburbs, not the black neighborhoods, even though it was promised.” It is and has long been known what is needed in Jacksonville to help vulnerable communities from the dangers of flooding, and now it is time that something is done about it.
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