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Surviving a flood: a community perspective from Pensacola, Florida

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Image courtesy of Gloria Horning

Thriving Earth Exchange’s partnership with Higher Ground’s Anthropocene Alliance has led to almost a dozen projects in communities impacted by flooding, including coastal communities facing the impacts of climate change in the spaces where they live, work, play, and pray. Gloria Horning, a community leader from Pensacola, Florida recounts her experience as a survivor of Hurricane Sally which wreaked havoc in her community in late September and shares her experience working with scientists to inform a better future.


I was Flooded by Sally – It Didn’t Have to be This Bad

By Gloria Horning

Gloria Horning, community leader in Pensacola, FL

By noon Tuesday, the first winds from Hurricane Sally were banging at the side of my little shot-gun style house in Pensacola. The rains would soon follow, and I was worried. My neighborhood, called the Tanyard, floods regularly, and since they built the new subdivisions, it has gotten worse. And another big new housing complex — almost 20 acres – is going up right across the street from me. If the rains are as bad as they predict, my house will be inundated.


That’s what I was thinkinglast month, before my scheduled zoom meeting with Dr. Steven Emerman, a hydrologist we met through the Thriving Earth Exchange, and Harriet Festing, director of Higher Ground. They are helping us – me and my Tanyard neighbors – understand the risks of new development in the floodplain and what we can do to stop it. Steve has spent a career studying how big developments and poor stormwater modeling, have led to devastating urban flooding. Harriet leads the largest flood survivor organization in the country (of which I am a member), and has become a good friend too. Together they are formidable, and have helped other communities put a brake on bad development.


What I call “the Big Build” across the street is the latest in series of projects that have turned a stable, mostly Black, middle and working class neighborhood into the frontier of urban gentrification in the Florida Panhandle. The recipe is simple: allow the flood control infrastructure in the Tanyard to degrade so that flooding becomes more frequent. Buy up damaged homes for a song, then rebuild them and sell them for double your costs. Add heavier rains and sea level rise due to climate change, and repeat the process.  Just to make things even easier for the big build developer and worse for long time residents, the city of Pensacola, changed its building codes to allow the apartments and condos as rise as high as 6 stories high, and cover 95% of the surface area of a parcel.


The developer’s brochures don’t mention the flooding. They show a picture of a blond haired, ponytailed mother on her bicycle, protectively following her daughter along the new “continuous waterfront trail system”. They boast as well of amenities such as an “education nature park with a focus on environmental sustainability.” To be fair, since the new houses and apartments will be raised, they may be protected from the worst flooding, at least for a while. It’s the rest of us in the Tanyard who will be made to bear the brunt of the storms that now hit Pensacola with the regularity of clockwork.


I’ve already experienced flooding. When the tide rises above the seawall and fills the drainage system, raw sewage backs up right outside my house making the street both disgusting and impassable.  The Big Build will make it worse. When I showed plans for the project to a state floodplain manager, he gasped in horror.


That’s why I’m such a proud supporter of Higher Ground’s Flood Survivors’ Manifesto, which was developed in discussion with flood survivors like me. Here are a few of its points that especially reasonate:


  • Don’t Build Where it Floods
  • Protect or restore the natural ecologies that reduce flooding.
  • Don’t diss the knowledge and know-how of survivors


These are at once bold ideas and no-brainers. If the city of Pensacola had followed even one of them, my house and my neghbors houses wouldn’t be facing repetitive flooding and all the dislocation, loss, and grief that it causes. Hurricanes and tropical storms are bad, but they don’t have to be nearly this bad!


Oh, and by the way: Even though my house is elevated four feet off the ground, water from Sally rose to about three foot high in my living room. The place is a wreck and I don’t know if it can – or if it should – be rebuilt (That’s another bullet in the Manifesto – “Stop Recycling Flooded Properties.”)  For the time being, I’m staying in a friend’s house just outside Pensacola and trying to figure out what’s next. I’m pretty much broke, but my fellow flood survivors from Higher Ground have been helping me out. To fight flooding, you need comrades including the scientists from Thriving Earth Exchange.


I’m tough one, but surviving these floods is getting harder and harder and pretty soon – unless we can stop dangerous developments and halt climate change – my whole neighborhood, including the fancy new developments for wealthy folks, will be underwater for good.

Kelly McCarthy subscriber


AshleyOct 18, 2020 at 3:19 PM

Thank you for sharing. I am in Bristol park in cantonment and was flooded out too

Brian ShepherdOct 19, 2020 at 10:49 AM

I share most of the same problems. My house has flooded twice in the past 6 years and almost a third time. I put in a work order for public works to try and remedy the problem they just sing the drainage ditch out which doesn’t solve anything cause they don’t leave my block. So I don’t want to rebuild just to go through this again. All the houses around me are newer and all fill and build and built up feet above my property.

Jenni KoontzOct 20, 2020 at 3:04 AM

Add us to your list. Hurricane Sally brought our (usually two foot low) backyard canal into our house & 3 or our neighbors. Turns out our next door neighbor’s new house is built so high that two houses on both sides were inundated. Extremely frustrating. Especially since he’s a local home builder…

Leonel Guitian-BerniserOct 20, 2020 at 2:55 PM

Thank You Gloria Horning! Regards from México.

SuzanneOct 21, 2020 at 4:01 PM

This is so true in my town too, Ocean City, NJ.

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