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Drainage expert up to his knees in ideas

He lives in a flood-prone area and wants to help the county, but he says his advice falls on deaf ears.

By NICOLE JOHNSON
Published October 1, 2006


[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Phil Hamilton, 70, who lives in East Lake's Tarpon Woods neighborhood and has worked in water management and public works, says this pipe is unable to stop flooding there. The county has spent millions trying to fix Tarpon Woods' drainage problem, so far with little success.

If you worked in drainage, Phil Hamilton is the last person you'd want living in a neighborhood with a flooding problem.

The 70-year-old East Lake resident has spent more than half his life fixing drainage problems, engineering developments and ridding streets of flooded water in Largo and other Pinellas cities.

So it's with a lot of fluster and frustration that Hamilton goes out the front door of his Tarpon Woods home to find a foot of water on his street after it rains.

"If anybody would listen, I'd teach drainage to them," Hamilton said.

He tries.

But when workers come to Hamilton's neighborhood to repair the problems, he says, his advice falls on deaf ears.

"They don't run anything by me," said Hamilton, tanned and wiry. "I have to go out there and see what they're doing."

It's no secret that sections of Tarpon Woods have big drainage problems. The county has poured millions of dollars into the problem over the past several years, including a failed attempt to partner with the Tarpon Woods golf course owners to do a multimillion-dollar pipe project that would have helped floodwater drain faster.

The problem stems from the Brooker Creek watershed, which stretches 39 miles from Hillsborough County into Pinellas County. As development booms in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, water that once had space to flow has been rerouted, intensifying problems in places like Tarpon Woods.

During the rainy season, residents have to slosh their way to their cars. In some spots the water can be a foot deep and can last for weeks, according to county officials.

"The water is going up and so are the taxes," said Greg McClimans, who owns the 142-acre golf course.

Constructed in the 1970s, the Toniwoods Lane section of Tarpon Woods gets some of the worst flooding.

"It's constructed below sea level," said Jorge Quintas, director of engineering for Pinellas County's department of public works. "They're basically at the bottom of the hill."

But Hamilton says the county hasn't handled the problem correctly in the past. And he lets them know it. He's organized community meetings around the issue. He's even toyed with the idea of filing a lawsuit against the county alleging inefficient work.

His wife, Myrna, had to calm him down a bit on the last note.

Most of the time he goes out into the street and does analysis of his own.

Last week, the culverts along the street were full of water. The inlets are supposed to flood once every 10 years, Hamilton said, not three times a year.

At the northeast section of the creek, he walks over to a large exposed black pipe.

"See: I told them over and over to build the dike to this level," he said, pointing to a tree with a water mark about 3 feet high. The dirt covering the pipe has washed out three times since county officials constructed it last year, Hamilton said. Without the cover, the water washes out of the creek into the neighborhood.

It sort of sounds like a teacher correcting a student's work. Sometimes county officials listen.

"He's correct on that pipe washing out problem," said John Holt, assistant director of highways for the county. "This year the rain overtopped it and it rose to an elevation we haven't seen in a long, long time."

Other times they say his strategies don't take into account all the new environmental requirements placed on county officials.

Hamilton scoffs.

"When I was working, we were the authority. Nowadays people are afraid of the bee and bunny people," he said, referring to environmentalists.

After attending the University of Georgia, the Florida native came back to his home state. Through the 1960s and 1970s, Hamilton served as public works director for Largo and Pinellas Park. He also did engineering for St. Petersburg.

"I've never seen an insurmountable drainage problem," said Hamilton, who also served as a manager for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "I love drainage."

But a heart attack at age 37 forced him to pay more attention to his health. He and his wife relocated to Virginia, where she worked for Xerox, and he took private contracting jobs and tended to cows, turkeys and chickens on the family's farm.

"I never had a turkey question my decision," he joked.

In 1999, the couple moved back to East Lake into a yellow house with flowers painted on the front. The flooding problem didn't seem as bad then, as there was more land to absorb all the raindrops and Brooker Creek flowed a little bit better. Hamilton spent a lot of time fixing computers.

But the boom of development over the past several years seems to have sucked him back into drainage. Only, this time around, he isn't the one making the decisions.

He swears, though, if the tables were turned, and he was in control, he'd listen to himself.

"I'm somebody who has solutions, but I'm not part of the system anymore," he said. "I used to be."

Nicole Johnson can be reached at 727 445-4162 or njohnson@sptimes.com.

[Last modified September 30, 2006, 22:05:03]


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