If you passed her on the street, you'd never suspect Sue Eberle is a vociferous tree-hugger. She's too maternal, too upper-middle class, the kind of woman who brings you brownies to say thanks. She lives in too nice a house, a four-bedroom home overlooking the Little Econlockhatchee River in Oviedo that's valued at $344,000. She apologizes when she swears -- and nothing worse than "damn," at that.
But if you talk to her long enough, you'll realize she's pissed off, though she'd never use such language. More than that, she's frustrated. For the last nine years, Eberle, now the conservation chair for the Central Florida Sierra Club, has been fighting the region's affinity for rabid growth. For the most part, she admits, developers win. Politicians let them; the media doesn't seem to care.
"Where can I go?" she asks. "I've gone everywhere and told everybody, and nobody will help."
Recently, she's come up with her "Hail Mary," an 800-page manifesto in a three-ring binder that she compiled over the last four months, and last week delivered to Senators Bob Graham and Bill Nelson. (Orlando Weekly got the Reader's Digest version, running about 400 pages). It is the culmination of her research over her last nine years of environmental activism, and she's hoping like heck that it yields results.
Here's her thesis: In Central Florida, and specifically within the Econ River basin, studies used to calculate floodplains, or the area that will flood in the event of a major storm, have been purposefully miscalculated to allow developers to build where they shouldn't. County governments, state water management districts, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency all turn a blind eye, she believes. To prove her theory, she's requested a peer review of the current floodplain study from every conceivable local and state agency but has had no luck.
When a big storm hits, Eberle says, the results will be catastrophic, and her warnings will be justified. Meanwhile, thousands of people could be flooded out of their homes, and the counties that allowed the development will get stuck with a hefty price tag.
Orange County officials generally dismiss Eberle's concerns, saying she spreads bad information. The targets of her crusades consider her something of a pest, a gadfly who sees conspiracies where none exist. The mention of her name is often greeted with an audible groan. Says Orange County stormwater manager M. Krishnamurthy: "We are spending too much time with Susan Eberle, just to satisfy her ghost fears I guess."
But are any of her "ghost fears" legitimate? Is the floodplain adopted by Orange and Seminole counties too low, and why won't county officials leaders pay for a peer review to determine just how accurate the current data is?
Krishnamurthy says absolutely not. "I already reviewed this thing," he says. "I have complete confidence in the technical [data]. Any kind of a review, it would be, in my opinion, a waste."
An unlikely activist
When Eberle moved to Orlando in August 1994 with her husband John, she never imagined she'd become an activist. He'd just retired from the Army and had taken a job in the University of Central Florida's Research Park. She was a part-time nurse.
They fell in love with a house in the newly designed RiverWalk subdivision. Just a few feet north of the Orange-Seminole line, the home was minutes away from the research park, and offered Eberle the Little Econ for a backyard, instead of the sardine-like military housing to which they'd become accustomed.
"We came here looking for peace," Eberle says.
That peace ended in November 1994, with the coming of Tropical Storm Gordon. Over four days, Gordon pounded Central Florida with more than seven inches of rain. Eberle's neighborhood flooded. The Little Econ swelled, nearly reaching her back door.
Gordon was a bad storm, but far from catastrophic. It was what stormwater engineers call an eight-year event, or the type of storm that can be expected, on average, every eight years. But when she bought her house, she was told it was outside of the 100-year flood zone, meaning that her home should have been safe even in the worst storms.
That event, and the realization that developers had, with counties' approval, built thousands of homes in areas just as flood prone as hers, awoke Eberle's environmental conscience. She joined Sierra, battled UCF's growth plans and spoke out against suburban sprawl.
As the years passed, Eberle became convinced that the floodplain data was wrong, and deliberately crafted to allow developers to build in unsafe places. She became certain that Pete Singhofen, the Seminole County-based engineer behind the floodplain study, was a pawn for developers.
Singhofen and Orange County both consider that ludicrous. Singhofen points out that it was never his intention for his original floodplain study, conducted in 1985, to set the standard for all of Seminole County. He did a study for a single development, Twin Rivers in Oviedo. The developer paid him about $60,000 to determine where the 10-year floodplain was. Prior to his 1985 study, data used at that time to judge floodplains was dated and incomplete, he says.
The Twin Rivers developers submitted Singhofen's study, along with their permits, to Seminole County. Because the existing data wasn't good, Seminole County extrapolated Singhofen's limited study throughout the county, and submitted it to FEMA for approval. FEMA adopted the Singhofen study per the county's request, and included the new floodplain maps in the FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps. In other words, a study Singhofen did for one development set the standard for the entire Econ basin in Seminole.
Singhofen's study lowered the 100-year floodplain on what would become Eberle's property from 48 feet to 42 feet, meaning that her house would flood when the river's water depth reaches 42 feet above sea level. Normally, the Little Econ near the Orange County border sits at about 32 feet. At the same Seminole-Orange border along the Big Econ, the change was less dramatic, just two feet. The change near the Twin Rivers development, where the Little and Big Econs meet, was one foot.
As Eberle notes, when it comes to floodplains, even the smallest changes can have dramatic repercussions. And during Gordon, she says, floodwaters surged hundreds of feet past where the floodplain maps said they should go. To Eberle, that meant that the maps were worthless, and the thousands of homes that had been built since 1985 in the Econ basin were endangered.
In the late 1990s, following numerous requests from Eberle and other environmentalists, Seminole and Orange counties along with the St. Johns River Water Management District ordered another floodplain study, this time hiring Singhofen at a fee of more than $700,000.
His report came in fall of 2000, and while it raised the 100-year levels, environmentalists were not impressed. Eberle says it's closer to reality, but still calls it "conservative."
"It is not accurate," she says. "This whole thing, it needed to be investigated a long time ago. Certainly, it needs to be done now in light of all this new [development]."
Singhofen says the new levels are lower than what environmentalists may like, but they're far higher than what developers wanted. That suggests it's accurate to him.
Eberle has spent the last three years demanding a peer review of Singhofen's recent study from Orange County, Seminole County, the St. Johns water district, the city of Oviedo, anyone who might pony up some money -- about $10,000.
Krishnamurthy points out that Singhofen's study has been reviewed not only by his office, but by the St. Johns River Water Management District as well. "They don't have any vested interest," he says. Not to mention, he adds, the developers who take on huge risks developing in flood zones.
"You think the developer, if they see anything wrong, they will keep quiet?" Krishnamurthy asks. "They will jump up and down."
Orange County is reviewing the Singhofen study, but not quite how Eberle would like. Krishnamurthy says that many homes listed as within the 100-year floodplain aren't, because Singhofen didn't take into account the height of the buildings off the ground. When the new data comes in, those homes will no longer be in the floodplain and hence, no longer require flood insurance.
Eberle isn't happy. "This is just more frustrating than ever. That's why I'm asking for this investigation."
A considerable part of Eberle's research goes to what she sees as the inconsistent enforcement of the existing floodplains by FEMA. In other words, a property owner can seek, and often receives, an amendment to the floodplain allowing the owner to either ditch his flood insurance, or as Eberle fears, develop. The binder she delivered to Nelson and Graham has 300 pages of flood map amendments which FEMA has approved in Orange County alone.
"It seems to me that nobody's watching what's going on," Eberle says of the thousands of floodplain changes she's chronicled. "There's no primary, secondary or cumulative studies going on. Nobody's looking at the big picture. When you start seeing hundreds or thousands of changes [amendments to the FEMA maps], you say, 'Gosh,' alarms start going off."
Nearly all of those changes, Krishnamurthy says, are homeowners amending the flood maps by including their house's elevation and thus, avoiding paying flood insurance. He says it's not, as Eberle suggests, developers changing floodplains so they can build more houses.
Eberle, meanwhile, is hoping her newest compilation of research will spark someone's interest. "You work so hard and get so frustrated, I get to the point where I say, 'Why am I doing this?' It's almost a form of self-punishment."
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