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Hurricane Highlights Long-Term Flooding Problems In Bonita Springs, Fla.


All right. We're going to focus now on a community called Bonita Springs in Florida. It was hit hard by Hurricane Irma, which was back in September. Today, the debris piles are gone, and businesses are back up and running. Now the city is focused, though, on a long-term problem - protecting vulnerable areas from repeat flooding. Here's NPR's Greg Allen.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: On Florida's southwest coast, Bonita Springs is known for its beautiful white sand beaches and the Imperial River, which runs from the Western Everglades into the Gulf. For Isaac Rodriguez, living close to the river has become a major headache.

ISAAC RODRIGUEZ: Let's see. I got 10 inches inside and, like, 14 outside.

ALLEN: Like most people in this neighborhood, Rodriguez's home flooded badly in hurricane Irma. After the storm passed, water from the river cascaded through the streets. With the river high, he says, the flooding continued long after the storm passed.

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, it took seven days for it to recede far enough for me to get into the house.

ALLEN: Nearly four months after Irma, Rodriguez is still not back at home. With money from his flood insurance, he's been doing the repairs himself.

RODRIGUEZ: I've been coming along. I got the drywall up. Painting's done. Bathroom's done.

ALLEN: That was the second time last year that homes in the neighborhood flooded. Several weeks before Hurricane Irma, unusually heavy rains caused the Imperial River to crest, giving residents a preview of the storm's flood. Rodriguez says he can't afford to elevate his home, so as soon as the work is done, he's leaving.

RODRIGUEZ: I'm planning on putting it on the market, moving out.

ALLEN: And why are you doing it? Because of the flooding? Or...

RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely, absolutely. I'm just - you know, this has taken a long toll, I mean, being out of your place here, renting another place - yeah, money issues. It's just - it's not worth it.

ALLEN: In Bonita Springs, a few large trucks with cranes are still at work, picking up the remaining piles of debris. Lori Malone says a truck recently carted off a huge pile of waterlogged furniture and clothing from her front yard. She walks me through her home just a few blocks from the river.

LORI MALONE: You can see the water line right here.

ALLEN: Yeah, it's about two feet high, I'd guess.

L. MALONE: And the whole staircase was, like, this thick of just green mold.

ALLEN: All the drywall has been ripped out. A contractor recently sprayed the interior to eliminate mold. Malone says the electrical wiring is damaged.

L. MALONE: It's working barely, but it all needs to be ripped out and redone. The plumbing all needs to be out and redone.

ALLEN: Lori and her husband Rodney Malone had flood insurance. But after ripping out most of the drywall, their contractor is telling them renovating the home will cost $250,000. That's nearly double what they're getting from insurance.

L. MALONE: And that's what I'd love to do. But I can't sell this as it is, and I still have no - a mortgage on it, so I'm just - we're just stuck.

ALLEN: The Malones call her neighborhood the toilet bowl because water from surrounding areas flows in and settles there. The city's mayor, Peter Simmons, says, following Hurricane Irma, consensus is building to find a long-term solution to the area's flood problem.

PETER SIMMONS: We need water storage. We need water retention. We need rivers dredged so that it can handle more water. We need to retrain this water, if you will, to get it into the river and get it into the Gulf of Mexico so that it does the least amount of damage for folks and for homes.

ALLEN: The city is working with FEMA on a plan to buy out residents of a mobile home park on the river. But they have little other help to offer to nearby homeowners like Rodney and Lori Malone.

L. MALONE: I'm feeling like we don't matter. We're just insignificant. We're down here in the toilet bowl. And we'll continue to live here and try to fix our houses the best that we can.

RODNEY MALONE: So the next flood comes, and then they'll be having the same excuses.

ALLEN: For now, the Malones say they're negotiating with their insurance company and hoping the river doesn't flood again. Greg Allen, NPR News, Bonita Springs, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "DREAMT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.