Megan Searcy stood out on her deck Thursday and watched the growing chasm in her backyard creep closer and closer to her home.
A retention pond next to Searcy’s home failed during a mid-May storm, and spouts of stormwater from a broken drainage pipe had been scouring away the ground beneath her property ever since. A chain-link fence that marked the edge of her yard had already crumpled into the hole, and a new orange safety fence separated her home from the small cliff inching its way toward her residence.
As of Thursday, no one had given Searcy any indication her home was at immediate risk, and county officials said they were working to begin repairs soon. So for the time being, Searcy was left to just wait and watch and worry.
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“It’s scary. I’m a single mom. I have three kids. I have 10-year-old twins and a 4-year old and they’re not allowed to go outside,” Searcy said. “I’ve been scared to water my yard because I don’t know if that’s gonna contribute to it. I have two dogs as well. They can’t play. I had to take off work because what if something happened while I wasn “t here? I also take care of my elderly mother and she’s at home. … It’s been extremely stressful and scary and the unknown for anything in a disaster like this is terrifying.”
Searcy’s home is a new build in the Cambria subdivision off Avalon Boulevard in Milton. She bought the home in September 2021, and she saw no red flags during the purchasing process.
But on May 15, a storm damaged the drainage system, and the issues were exacerbated by repeated rain events over the last two weeks.
“I put in a work order with the county on Monday the 16th,” she said. “I did get a follow up saying that ticket was created for the issue on the following Tuesday the 17th. And then of course, it just kept getting worse and worse from there. With the rain that happened this past Sunday, it took my yard And it has only continued to take my yard and the rest of the holding ponds … it’s just continued to get worse.”
The subdivision was developed by DR Horton, and Searcy said there was initially some back and forth between the developer and Santa Rosa County about who was responsible for the repairs. Still, she said county staff had been responsive and communicated they had received approval to take emergency action.
In a statement Thursday afternoon, Santa Rosa County officials confirmed the pond is county-maintained, and the statement said they would be working on temporary repairs immediately and then following up with more permanent repairs.
“I’m probably about 10 feet away from the edge of the drop off right now … they haven’t said that I needed to move or to leave the premises. I haven’t seen any cracking or foundation issues at the moment ” Searcy said. “But there is a train that also connects and disconnects that’s right behind the holding pond, so that can play a factor into the erosion going way quicker throughout the next couple of days.”
Searcy has been posting photos and videos of the erosion in her yard to keep her neighbors updated on the situation in case they wind up being impacted.
The posts attracted the attention of the Flood Defendersa nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides education and advocacy for citizens affected by flooding.
Flood Defender’s Chris Curb, an engineer who specializes in flooding and drainage, said it’s ultimately up to the county to prevent incidents like this by ensuring their development codes are strong enough to protect citizens and their departments are adequately staffed to enforce the codes.
“County staff needs to be increased,” he said. “They need more inspectors. They need more engineers. They need more permit clerks to do the job that they’re there to do.”
He added that Santa Rosa County had some of the weakest codes in the Panhandle, despite the fact that they had been rewritten just two years ago.
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“You got to have smart, strong codes that protect people, and right now Santa Rosa County doesn’t have a smart, strong code. They’ve got weak code and it’s not protecting people. They’ve got 1,744 flood problem areas on their GIS map, and that’s not even all of the flood problem areas,” Curb said. “That’s a lot of problem areas in this county and they’re increasing. You’ve got brand new subdivision being built over here that flood. What gives?”
For Searcy’s case, despite the stress, she’s taking the situation in stride and hoping her crisis can do some good by raising awareness in others.
“I do believe there’s a stormwater drainage issue in the county from what I’ve read and what I’ve seen,” she said. “I know just right up the street, there’s been issues as well. So I think that’s the main focus that everybody’s seen being an issue lately, is the stormwater runoff in all these new communities. So hopefully just bringing more awareness that these detrimental events can happen in the blink of an eye.”