Cory Lambe (left) clears out drains along Lands End Road on Hypoluxo Island.
Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
Bill Otis and Challis Thompson chat while checking out flooding on the north end
of McKinley Park on Hypoluxo Island.
By Dan Moffett
The town of Lantana completed more than $1 million worth of drain, sewer and road improvements on Hypoluxo Island last summer, and officials told residents in the flood-prone neighborhoods they would be good until the next 100-year storm.
What no one knew then was that the next 100-year storm was only a matter of months away.
On Jan. 9, lines of powerful thunderstorms unexpectedly collided with a stubborn cold front and dumped torrential rains throughout the coastal communities of Palm Beach County, some areas recording as much as 22 inches in a five-hour period on that stormy Thursday night.
And, despite all the improvements, Hypoluxo Island took one of the hardest hits, as it has many times before.
Streets turned into rivers and cars died in the wakes. McKinley Park became Lake McKinley. The rising water crept into driveways, garages and homes. Residents pulled out the pumps they thought they’d never have to use again and did what they could to turn back the flood.
“I’ve lived on North Atlantic Drive for over 20 years,” said Ken Hilgendorf, who wondered aloud what good all the drainage projects had done. “Why spend that much money and not have it work? Guess what? The problem’s not corrected. It’s still a problem and we need to do something about it.”
Hilgendorf’s neighbor, Lantana Mayor Dave Stewart, was in the streets during the storm, armed with a rake to clear debris from the drains and a jack to move a stalled car.
“I understand your frustration,” he told residents, “when you see the water go from six inches, to a foot, to two feet, to three feet and start getting into your garage or house and the pump seems not to be doing anything.”
Stewart questioned whether the new pumping system was performing as efficiently as it should. “Something doesn’t seem right,” he said, noting that the pump seemed to make no progress against the rising waters until the next morning, when it seemed to suddenly come to life and drop the water level at a rapid rate.
Town Manager Deborah Manzo said the pumping system was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the deluge.
“It was designed to take about eight inches of rain in a 24-hour period and keep up with that amount of rain,” Manzo said. “We got about 22 inches in a three- to five-hour period.”
She said the town’s engineer would be checking the system to ensure it is working properly.
“There’s only so many things you can do,” Stewart said. “A lot of it had to do with the volume and the time period it happened. … We’ve been through hurricanes, but not had them dump 21 inches in a five- to six-, to seven-hour period. That’s more rain than you usually get in three months. It was one of those freaks of nature.”
While Lantana residents on the north end of the island were trying to keep the flood waters out of their homes, Manalapan residents on the island’s southern point had few problems — unless they tried to drive into the streets.
“We had about eight cars that stalled in the water,” said Town Manager Linda Stumpf. “But we didn’t have any flooding in garages or homes.”
Town police officers used SUVs to ferry residents through the street waters, which peaked out at a couple of feet. Three sea walls also were compromised during the storm.
“We tried to warn residents to stay in their homes,” Stumpf said. “Overall, we came through it pretty well.”
Stumpf said that longtime residents say Point Manalapan hasn’t had a significant flooding problem in the last 35 years, probably because the homes are high enough and far enough from storm waters, and also because of a good network of catch basins.
Hypoluxo Island resident Vince Denchy said neighbors on the Lantana side contributed to the drainage problems by leaving out their garbage containers and recycling bins.
“We’re our own worst enemies,” Denchy said. “People should have pulled their recyclables and garbage back in. They shouldn’t have been left out the night of the storm. Plastic bags and recyclables plugged up a lot of drains and was a major problem.”
Denchy said he worked to remove the debris from the drains. “Once we got them unclogged,” he said, “the water went down like a whirlpool. In 45 minutes it was gone.”
Jerry Darr, the town’s utility director, said the bags and recyclables were a nuisance but not the main reason for the problems. He said the system was pumping at its maximum level, pushing about 2,000 gallons a minute off the island.
“There were recycling bins floating all around,” he said, “and there were also tree limbs that clogged things up. But it was just a lot of water that came down in a short period of time. It was pumping as fast as it could.”
Richard Schlosberg said the poor performance of the new system in his neighborhood doesn’t inspire confidence in the town’s plan to put in a new drainage system at the flood-prone Lantana beach parking lot. “That may be vulnerable, too,” he said.
But the mayor is advancing the hope that the January storm was an extraordinary event that the town isn’t likely to see again anytime soon.
“They talk about a 100-year storm. That doesn’t mean one that happens every 100 years,” said Stewart. “That means the volume and the amount of water. If you want to look at that, this was something that would happen in a 1,000-year storm. Hopefully, it doesn’t happen again.”