October 23, 2019

One Stillwright Point resident posted this sign in early September.

Contributed One Stillwright Point resident posted this sign in early September.

KEY LARGO — Stillwright Point residents have been held captive in their homes for almost two months as an extremely flooded bay continues to pour seawater into their neighborhood.

A trifecta of storms, king tides and sea level rise are to blame, according to local meteorologists.

Most of the 215 homes that make up the small neighborhood are along canals and surrounding roads have been submerged in ankle- to calf-deep water, depending on the tide, for the last 47 days as of Friday.

Anne Leonard took this picture of flooding in Key Largo on Oct. 15.

“I worry about my neighbor. He’s lost so much weight,” said Marty Fritch who lives on South Drive. “He’s 83 years old and can’t leave his house. He usually goes out for breakfast, but his car won’t make it. I don’t know what he’s been eating.”

North Blackwater Drive, the access road to U.S. 1 for six streets, remains flooded, leaving those with smaller vehicles stranded. Many avoid driving through the water out of fear what the highly corrosive saltwater will do to their vehicles.

“I have somewhere to be and I have to take my car. I don’t know where I can hose it down,” Fritch said.

While the subdivision has historically been known to flood, residents say this is the longest it’s been underwater. And there’s no near-future sign of it receding.

“The water isn’t going to pull out of there anytime soon,” said Jonathan Rizzo, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Key West. “It won’t recede until at least another two to three weeks after we get the next lunar cycle that peaks the end of this month.”

The waters are running about a foot to a foot-and-a-half higher than predicted tide levels and that’s been happening since September in part due to Atlantic storms, Rizzo said.

Neither Hurricane Humberto, Hurricane Lorenzo or Tropical Storm Melissa made landfall, but they clogged up the flow of the Gulf Stream, causing water to back up into Florida Bay.

“These chronic northeast winds oppose the Gulf Stream, causing it to slow down and broaden. This is happening all along the east coast,” Rizzo said.

The higher tides of autumn and rising sea levels are also contributing to the problem.

There’s no normalcy for many Stillwright Point residents. The stench of standing water, biting insects, fish swimming in the street, marine toads and even the possibility of crocodiles have residents of this normally active community afraid to leave their houses, especially at night.

“Oh, the noises I’ve been hearing at night,” resident Emilie Stewart said. “It’s amphibians and splashes and all kinds of weird sounds. There’s no running out to get a gallon of milk anymore.”

She and many others feel that Monroe County officials have largely ignored their requests for help.

“There is absolutely no effort on the county’s part. They just keep telling us that the countywide roadway study will be done in 14 months,” Stewart said. “We were told that we were on the list of known flood-prone neighborhoods, but then we were told we weren’t, so I don’t know if anything is being planned.”

The flood-prone Twin Lakes subdivision, about three miles down the highway from Stillwright Point, has been selected for a road elevation project but has been held up by some ecological issues.

“I don’t know why we can’t be a part of that pilot project,” Stewart said. “Everything that is restraining the Twin Lakes pilot project, we are free from.”

Fritch wants some type of action from Monroe County.

“Maybe we can put a wall of sandbags up or something,” she said. “They spend all this vast amount of money doing this study, and they can just come here and see. We have to try something. This is crazy.”

Such short-term solutions won’t make a difference, according to an email from Assistant County Administrator Kevin Wilson to a Stillwright Point homeowner.

“Pumping will not solve the problem since the water will continue to flow right back in at high tides as it is simply the ocean, or bay in this case, flowing over land as opposed to water being trapped in a bowl or something that could potentially be pumped out,” he wrote. “Drilling holes or wells in the road won’t do anything other than create another place for water to flow up through.”

County staff has been working on tentative solutions, such as raising roads, according to Wilson.

“Once we prove that the tentative solutions identified so far will work and that the standards proposed will actually improve the situation, we expect to roll them out across the county,” he said.

Fritch claims that when the neighborhood was sewered about 10 years ago, the contractor who repaved the roads didn’t raise them as high as they were before the work.

“Ever since we got the sewer, we’ve had nothing but trouble,” she said.

Residents say sewer breathers used by the vacuum sewer system have had to be re-staked into the ground due to the flooding.

The Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District confirmed that flooding causes more maintenance issues. But district Commissioner Robby Majeska said the system was built to withstand flooding.

District General Manager Peter Rosasco agreed, saying, “Our system is designed to be submerged in saltwater. Most problems we experience from high water are on the private property side of the system, like leaking laterals and other openings.”

Meanwhile, Fritch said her hope for any help from local officials is waning.

“I hope the water is gone by Thanksgiving,” Fritch said. “I host Thanksgiving, but no one will come here if it’s still like this.”