Reports on Fort Lauderdale flood show heroism, weaknesses as city ramps up infrastructure projects
Fort Lauderdale officials knew that dozens of low-lying neighborhoods flooded easily even during regular rainstorms. High tides and aging drainage infrastructure only made the problem worse.
Then came the historic rainstorm that struck last April 12, dumping a record of more than 26 inches of rain on the coastal city in a span of hours.
In requesting and obtaining public records, including disaster response reports and emails and texts between city employees, WLRN reporters were able to chronicle the frantic rescue and recovery operations during the historic rainfall, and how a regional network of first responders ultimately helped save the lives of those trapped by rising waters.
While public records showed the city had emergency procedures in place to ensure the safety of their residents, city officials identified weaknesses in its overall flood response system. Officials recognized that major infrastructure projects would need to be ramped up and majorly accelerated to prepare for future intense storms caused in large part by climate change.
Rescue efforts through the night
Mike Salzano, a battalion chief with Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue (FLFR), spent about 20 hours responding to emergency calls in the southern part of the city during the flood.
Salzano told WLRN that when he started his shift at about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 12, calls for help started out normal for any other particularly rainy day: Cars were stalled out on some roads, some residents reported having electrical issues.
But as afternoon turned to evening, and the water kept rising, the calls got worse.
“You went from areas of one foot [of water], to areas of four feet. And that happened pretty quickly,” Salzano said. "It literally went from zero to 100."
Entire roadways were inundated. People took to the roofs of their cars as they sat submerged in the middle of major streets. In some areas, rainwater rose more than four feet, and people left their cars to wade through chest-high pools just to get to safety. Residents came home from work to find the inside of their homes completely underwater.
An FLFR “After Action Report” published in July states that, at the height of the deluge on the night of April 12, the fire department reached a peak of 600 pending calls for service from residents. Fort Lauderdale estimated that in just a few days, the city received over 900 calls for help from residents who were stranded, trapped or otherwise affected by the rising waters.
Marjorie Banks, a resident of Edgewood, told WLRN when she climbed out of a window to rescue her pet dog the water was up to her chest in her backyard.
Photos and videos of that night, shared with WLRN, show firefighters navigating flooded neighborhoods with boats and modified pick up trucks as floodwaters entered homes. Some residents were guided by firefighters through waist-deep water to a rescue vehicle and brought to higher ground.
As the sun rose the morning after the rainfall, it became clearer what the city and their 5 water removal trucks were up against. Just after 9 a.m. an internal email shows that 425 calls to the city’s flood reporting line had come in, including 75 in the Edgewood neighborhood alone.
We learned some lessons. Moving forward, I think we're going to be better prepared ... We rescued more people in that one night than we have in probably the last hundred years.Mike Salzano, a battalion chief with Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue
The phone line was set up so that residents could report water damage to their homes.
The city had miraculously made it through the night with no reported deaths, thanks to the rescue missions run by Fort Lauderdale firefighters with help from outside agencies. Now the city’s public works department faced their own issue: how to get rid of the standing water and where to put it.
The city’s public works division manages almost 500 miles of sewer mains which, when operating correctly, rely on gravity to get water off the streets. When those lines get blocked the city has specialized trucks to help return the flow.
Some of the trucks used to move water after the flood came from companies contracted by the city, others came from neighboring municipalities, like the city of Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Riviera Beach and Boynton Beach, that Fort Lauderdale has partnered with through a mutual aid network.
These partnerships were available through the Florida Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network — a mutual aid response network that provides resources to members during natural disasters.
By Saturday April 15, the city had deployed 36 total trucks to move water with the additional help of West Palm Beach, Sunrise, Boynton Beach, Pembroke Pines, Bonita Springs and Margate.
Most of the city had been cleared, except for Melrose Manors, Melrose Park, Edgewood which still had over six inches of water.
Fort Lauderdale’s existing drainage infrastructure relies on gravity to move water from place to place. According to an email from Public Works Director Alan Dodd to city managers, drainage operations were hindered by high water levels in the city's canals during the flood.
“If the water levels in the canal are too high, then the water just won't flow and it sits there,” Dodd told WLRN in an October interview. “There was so much water coming through the canal system that it was really hard for the water to drain out of the neighborhoods for a few days after the storm.”
In weeks following the flood, teams from the Fort Lauderdale fire department and FEMA responded to the neighborhoods that had the most flooding to assess damages. Firefighters responded to residents that called the city’s phone line to report water damage and found that at least 1,121 homes had some level of damage. They found that 766 homes had major damage – or more than 18 inches of water inside.
City knew about vulnerable areas
A disaster like the April storm and flood would have been impossible to prepare for. That’s what leaders at the highest levels of Fort Lauderdale government have said in the months after.
But even before the flood, the coastal city was no stranger to high waters after rain.
A decade ago, Fort Lauderdale identified low-lying neighborhoods that were at high risk for storm surge. The city began taking steps to improve storm water infrastructure in those areas where existing systems wouldn’t stand up to sea level rise — with construction already underway on drainage pipes and trenchesin neighborhoods like Edgewood when the April storm hit.
“We were in the middle of projects. The pipes were sitting on the ground," Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis told WLRN in October.
A city flood database from April shows 480 reports of major property damage in Edgewood alone — proving that the city’s concerns about flooding in the neighborhood were warranted. Residential streets became rivers overnight. Rescue crews needed boats just to reach stranded residents.
Trantalis contends that the city should have worked harder in the past to improve dated infrastructure, but progress on updating drainage systems was slow while the city expanded.
“Had we done this ten years ago where the studies were telling us that these projects needed to be done, we wouldn't have had as significant a problem as we did suffer this past April,” Trantalis said, adding that the city has for too long encouraged development and population growth without updating infrastructure to keep up with the load.
Trantalis wasn’t the only one who thought the city could have been better prepared.
Four days after the flooding started, on April 16, Salzano, the FLFR battalion chief, sent an email to fire department leadership, expressing his apparent frustration that the city hadn’t been better equipped for such a disaster.
“We’ve had many members … that have spun their wheels for years trying to prepare for the events that happened this past week. Only to be lead [sic] down a path that did not allow for our own successes without help from many outside agencies,” Salzano wrote.
That outside help included connector boats and highwater vehicles from the Broward Sheriff’s Office, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and neighboring cities.
“Without those boats, it would have been definitely tougher,” Salzano told WLRN. “Those boats rescued a lot of people. They were able to just drive those boats up to people's front doors or their windows. So those boats were pivotal in what we did.”
Looking back, Salzano said his email message came more from his desire to help residents than from frustration.
“Firefighters like things to be perfect. We like when we’re doing a job to be 100% supported with the best equipment,” he told WLRN. “Would it be nice to have every piece of equipment we think we could need? Yes. Is that realistic? I don't know.”
In FLFR’s After Action Report, Fire Chief Stephen Gollan identified several areas where the department could improve. One of those areas is the need to add small boats to the department’s fleet to help in rescue operations during high water events.
FLFR also identified the need to develop a flood plan much like the city’s existing hurricane plan, and the need to more quickly identify the scope of a disaster from the beginning.
“There were concerns by several Chief Officers who had assumed their roles early Thursday morning that they were not aware of the true size and scope of the overall incident, nor were they fully aware of the other actions that had been taking place outside their span of control,” Gollan wrote.
Salzano said he is confident in his department, but the rescue missions would have been more difficult without the help of outside agencies. Since the flood, he said, the city has invested in modifying equipment and is considering buying a small boat to be used for similar rescue missions.
Both Salzano and Gollan noted that the department was able to navigate the disaster with no reported deaths, and they made due with the resources on hand to protect residents in an unprecedented situation.
“We learned some lessons. Moving forward, I think we're going to be better prepared,” Salzano said. “The men and women that night did an unbelievable job. We rescued more people in that one night than we have in probably the last hundred years. Nothing's going to take that away, whether we have more equipment or less equipment.”
Residents left homeless
The flooding left about 600 residents with no place to go. Some called the county’s homeless shelter, but it, too, was experiencing flooding. Others went to a temporary shelter at Holiday Park set up by the city and the American Red Cross.
“There has been an influx of calls for help from renters who are now displaced from their rental units,” Kimm Campbell, a Deputy County Administrator, wrote in an email to other county employees on April 15.
Following the massive flooding, President Biden declared parts of the city a federal disaster area, a move often made following major hurricanes and tornadoes — not usually for rainstorms.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has since provided $36.2 million to 9,570 uninsured and under-insured households in Broward County. The agency also paid out $218.3 million to 3,100 policyholders through the National Flood Insurance Program, a FEMA spokesperson told WLRN.
Mayor Trantalis said that money only covers a fraction of the total damage costs.
“We don’t have a final figure because we’re still tallying the damage,” he said.
More than six months after the disaster, Fort Lauderdale is looking to learn from its shortcomings with the newly announced Fortify Lauderdale plan — a $500 million program meant to overhaul the storm drainage system and curb flooding in 17 neighborhoods throughout the city.
“This is the most aggressive resiliency effort underway in our state, maybe our nation. It is what we need to do to protect our residents,” Mayor Trantalis told a crowd earlier this month at The Parker for the annual State of the City Address. “Public works engineers are engaged in a vulnerability assessment to identify and prioritize our greatest risks in this new program.”
The plan is expected to take 10 years and includes installing tidal control valves and drainage pipes, as well as building new catch basins to capture water and raising seawalls. It will also create storm water reserves in the Edgewood and River Oaks areas, according to the mayor.
More details are expected to be announced in November.
Though the exact plans for the program are not yet finalized, including how much more utility fees residents will have to pay to partially fund it, both Trantalis and the city’s Public Works department point to it as the city’s ticket to a more resilient future.
“Climate change is impacting our city … So we need to stay ahead of that. And that requires looking more at our resilience efforts.”Alan Dodd, Public Works Director
Current storm water infrastructure projects that were previously funded on five-year schedules have been accelerated to three-year schedules. Rather than designing infrastructure one neighborhood at a time, public works aims to design projects for 17 identified neighborhoods all at once, said Public Works Director Alan Dodd.
“A lot of times you are limited by your financial capacity and ability to get multiple projects moving at one time. Because we're managing it under a single program, it will allow us to accelerate that,” Dodd told WLRN.
One example: Before the storm, the city was working on improvements in neighborhoods like Edgewood and Melrose Manor — some of the most vulnerable in Fort Lauderdale.
The city is applying for state and federal infrastructure grants to fund all the projects over the next decade, though a portion of it will be paid for by residents who pay utility fees.
Trantalis said the utility rate may need to rise in light of Fortify Lauderdale, though the rate structure has not yet been determined. Residents already received a 9% utility rate increase for wastewater at the beginning of October, as well as a 22.5% increase for drinking water.
FLFR and the Fort Lauderdale administration have already begun to get new equipment to face future flood threats as well.
The fire department purchased a new “utility terrain vehicle” that Salzano said will be equipped to move through flood zones, and lifted an additional rescue truck to traverse high-water areas.
Dodd said the city has ordered another Vactor truck — a vehicle that cleans out storm water pipes and moves water — to add to their existing stock of four trucks. That’s expected to arrive next year.
Fort Lauderdale also purchased more portable pumps capable of removing flood water from inundated streets, and changed its emergency contracts to increase the amount of equipment the city can request in the event of a disaster, according to Dodd.
The Fortify Lauderdale Plan and new equipment are an acknowledgement by city leaders that the April flood will not be the last severe weather event. Between climate change and sea-level rise, Fort Lauderdale stands to see more major rain events sooner rather than later.
“Climate change is impacting our city. It's impacting our way of doing business,” said Dodd. “Sea level rise is having a greater impact. Heavy rainfall is having an impact… So we need to stay ahead of that. And that requires looking more at our resilience efforts.”