FORT LAUDERDALE — If you knock on Carolina Kohan’s front door, she won’t answer.
That’s because Kohan is now living with her dog and husband in a borrowed camper outside their home. Their house, one of hundreds fouled by the flood from hell on April 12, is no longer fit to live in. That day, the sky dumped buckets of rain on Fort Lauderdale, turning roads into rivers, lawns into lakes and the Kohan family home into a disaster zone along with at least 1,100 others in Fort Lauderdale.
There was no stopping the rising water. Horrified homeowners watched, helpless, as it crept up the walls. Now they’re worried it can happen all over again. They have good reason: Hurricane season starts June 1, just days away. The rainy season is already here. And they live in low-lying neighborhoods.
The mid-April deluge swamped all of Fort Lauderdale, but four neighborhoods were hardest hit by the rain bomb: Edgewood, River Oaks, Melrose Manors and Melrose Park. None have proper drainage, city officials say.
Help is on the way, but not anytime soon.
Stormwater upgrades are up to three years away for Melrose Manors and even more for Melrose Park. Major drainage upgrades are underway in River Oaks and Edgewood, but the $50 million pipes and pump stations won’t be in the ground and working until late 2024 or early 2025.
That long wait has flood victims dreading the next big storm. Will their neighborhood — and their homes — be swamped again?
Homeowners on edge
The rainstorm swept through town more than six weeks ago, but left a lasting impact on those who lived through it.
Lisa Hoyt, who lives across from the Kohans, still tears up talking about it.
“I have PTSD every time it rains now,” she said. “When a storm comes, I have anxiety.”
She remembers the barricades floating down the street. Fresh sod from her yard floating through a neighbor’s window. Water creeping up the walls, saturating mattresses, couches and precious family photos.
The Hoyt family huddled on chairs and couches with their three dogs, taking video of the sewage-tainted water flowing from the bathroom. By the time the rain stopped, their home had at least $15,000 in damage.
“We lost the washer, the dryer, the refrigerator and the dishwasher,” Lisa Hoyt said. “We put in laminate flooring over a year ago for $8,000. All ruined. It took years for us to save to put the floors in — and a matter of hours for it to be ruined.”
Hoyt’s husband had just planted seven new hedges on their property.
“They all floated away,” Hoyt said. “Sod we’d planted in our yard floated through a neighbor’s window. We got 17 inches of water in the garage and 4 in the house.”
But the family home is still livable. And for that, Hoyt is grateful.
“I have to think positively,” she said. “We weren’t displaced.”
The day of the storm, with the water rising fast, Kevin Kohan tied two kayaks to his fence to make sure they didn’t float away, only to watch part of the fence float away.
Just before midnight, Kohan waded outside to strap the kayaks to a sturdy oak — his plan of last resort. If the floodwaters got too high, the plan was to escape through the window and paddle away with his wife and Kane, their three-legged Doberman.
The Kohans barely slept that night. In the end, they did not have to escape through the window.
But like so many others, they woke up to a home destroyed by water.
They spent the first few nights in a hotel but were able to return to River Oaks when neighbors loaned them a camper. The camper, on loan from the Hoyts, is home for at least the next 30 days, Carolina Kohan says.
Zapped by floodwaters
In her real house, every room has been stripped bare of all the things that make a home a home. No photos of the family. No familiar trinkets. No dog beds or throw blankets. And no furniture to throw them on.
Anything that survived the flood — clothes, suitcases, mattresses — has been tucked away in a storage pod that now graces their front yard. Nearby is their 2007 Dodge Charger, its battery and engine zapped by floodwaters.
“The car is now just an ornament in the front yard,” Kevin Kohan said. “Once the water was above the tires, I knew there was no hope. It won’t even turn over.”
Their truck survived, but the water ruined just about everything else.
“Almost all the furniture was ruined,” Carolina Kohan said. “The couch was destroyed. And all the appliances.”
She points to the living room.
“Water went up 6 inches here in the living room and 11 inches in the front office and laundry room,” she says.
Her husband points to the giant oak right outside a window overlooking the backyard.
“I had to tie my two kayaks to the tree behind the house just in case we needed to leave through the window,” he said, patting the tree. “Thank you, buddy.”
The haves, the have-nots
The Kohans consider themselves lucky. They have flood insurance.
Their neighbors Robert and Lisa Hoyt do not.
President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration for Broward County, paving the way for FEMA assistance. But that assistance is not nearly enough to cover the damage inflicted by the rain bomb, flood victims say.
The Hoyts applied for FEMA assistance, but the money they received was a paltry sum that will cover only about 5% of the damage, they say.
FEMA works with each household on a case-by-case basis, agency spokesman John Mills told commissioners during a recent meeting.
“FEMA is here to jump-start things for disaster survivors,” Mills said. “We can provide a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. By law, FEMA is not allowed to pay for losses covered by insurance.”
So far, FEMA has sent $21 million to flood victims in Broward County to cover home repairs, rental assistance and other needs, including replacing personal property.
A total of 950 households in Edgewood and River Oaks have received $6.5 million in FEMA assistance for damage not covered by insurance. An estimated 900 households in Melrose Park and Melrose Manor have received $5.6 million.
‘It was a total nightmare’
River Oaks and Edgewood, still in recovery mode from the storm, have seen better days.
Couches, dressers and mattresses ruined by the flood wait curbside for pickup.
Construction crews continue to block roads and tear up streets to install underground drainage pipes. The workers showed up in January 2022 and aren’t expected to leave anytime soon.
Crews doing the messy job of installing pipes in Edgewood should be done sometime this summer, according to Public Works Director Alan Dodd. Workers digging up streets to install pipes in River Oaks should be done in December.
But none of the pipes will work until two high-capacity pump stations get installed in River Oaks. And that may take another two years, mainly because the pump stations are not yet built. Construction, which could not get underway until the city got the required permits, should start soon but will take 18 to 24 months, Dodd said.
A 72-inch pipe will connect Edgewood to River Oaks so storm water can be pumped out of both neighborhoods, Dodd said.
River Oaks sits just east of Interstate 95 and north of State Road 84. Edgewood lies to the south of State Road 84, east of I-95, and north of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
Ted Inserra, an activist who lives in River Oaks, says critics are still hopping mad about the mess in their neighborhood. They want to know why the project is taking so long. And they don’t buy the explanation they’re getting from city officials.
“They’re putting the pipes in the ground but the pump stations are not even built yet,” Inserra said. “They say we have to do things in order. Things take time. Blah blah blah. All these excuses.”
Homes that have never before flooded got 4 feet of water during the storm, Inserra said.
“Sewage was coming up through the drains in the tubs and showers,” Inserra said. “Toilets were overflowing. It was a total nightmare. People are fuming because their homes are ruined. And they could be ruined again because we have no drainage.”
Losing it all
Hoyt, her daughter and neighbor Shirlee Sandler drove through both River Oaks and Edgewood one recent afternoon to see just how bad things still are.
“These duplexes are all vacant,” Hoyt said as she drove along a street in Edgewood. “These are all renters. They had to leave because they got water up the walls and there’s going to be mold.”
A stray cat darts across the street. A child peers out of a doorway. A massive pile of what is now junk sits abandoned on the side of the road.
“Driving through here makes me want to cry,” Hoyt said. “And we’re not even seeing the inside of the houses. I only lost a little. These people lost everything. It’s just so sad.”
Hoyt and some of her neighbors have a theory on why River Oaks and Edgewood were hardest hit by the storm.
They think the drainage project only made the flooding worse. The street drains, they noted, had been covered up to keep out construction debris. So all that water had nowhere to go.
And the floodwaters on streets where no work was being done didn’t seem to rise as high, they say.
But city officials say it’s all about the elevation of the ground. The streets that had less flooding were likely on higher ground, they say.
“The whole area was flooded,” Mayor Dean Trantalis said when told of the neighborhood theory. “I don’t think the construction significantly changed the dynamic of what happened there. Whether your living room was flooded 2 feet or 4 feet, it was a major disaster for any homeowner.”
Sandler, secretary of the River Oaks Civic Association, says her house was built in 1969 and has never flooded like it did on April 12.
“We’re all wishing they wouldn’t have done this and would have left us alone,” she said of the drainage project. “We never had water come into our homes. And now they’re leaving us totally unprotected for two years.”
Commissioner Warren Sturman, whose district includes Edgewood and River Oaks, says he understands why homeowners might be on edge.
“Their big concern is hurricane season,” Sturman said. “They don’t want a rehash of what they have already gone through. We need to get this done as quickly as we can. But it’s a big project. It’s going to take time.”
Some homeowners have already contacted Bill Scherer, a prominent Fort Lauderdale attorney who told the South Florida Sun Sentinel he’s looking into the matter.
“They’re putting in pipes but no pumps and they don’t have any existing measures to handle the drainage,” he said. “What happens if we have a major hurricane? Hello? We have hurricanes. These people are trying to fix up their houses and they may have to do it all over again if we get another storm. These people are not protected until that whole project gets done. In the meantime, everybody’s vulnerable.”
Ready for next flood?
City Manager Greg Chavarria says the city plans to have staged pumps ready to help mitigate flooding while the project is under construction.
“We would deploy them as needed under the advisement of a storm forecast,” Chavarria said.
Trantalis says the drainage pipes would have already been put in the ground if not for a prior administration delaying the project and raiding the utility fund to balance the city’s budget.
The neighborhoods needing drainage upgrades were identified back in 2017 but were never funded by the previous administration, Trantalis said.
“So they sat on the shelf,” he said. “They took $100 million out of the water and sewer fund for five years and used that money to balance the budget and pay salaries and other things. When the new commission took over we made the decision to go out and borrow the money and start these projects.”
But the neighborhood would have flooded even with the new pipes in the ground, the mayor said.
“Even if the state-of-the-art drainage system were fully operational, it can only handle 7 inches of rain per day,” Trantalis said. “Even if this project were done, it would never have been able to handle the 26 inches of rain that fell in five hours.”
That is all true, Dodd said. But had the drainage system been in place, the water would not have been sitting there for days.
“If we had the pump stations, it would have drained the water much quicker,” he said. “Within a day or two, it would have drained. It would have been much faster.”
Susannah Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan