In a week’s time, heavy rain across South Florida wiped out six months worth of drought.
During this winter’s withering dry season, rainfall dropped 60 percent below average from the Florida Keys to south of Orlando, according to the South Florida Water Management District. Wildfires engulfed thousands of acres, from the Everglades to the Big Cypress Swamp, and Lake Okeechobee shrank to troubling levels. Then the skies opened up over the weekend, and South Florida bounced from the driest November since 1932 to the wettest week in 26 years.
“You could have experienced anywhere from four inches to 14 inches of rain,” said the district’s chief engineer, John Mitnik.
That may be good news for lawns, but it’s left South Florida scrambling to manage a deluge that delivered a month’s worth of June rain in a single week.
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The district had to make a dramatic pivot, from drought mode to flood control. A week ago, the district was moving thousands of gallons of water from vast conservation areas into canals to keep South Florida supplied and wet enough for Keys wellfields located in South Miami-Dade County. This week, it cranked up pumps from Palm Beach County to southern Dade, in an effort to keep the western suburbs dry and divert more water into the Everglades.
But even as the district raced to flush water off the coast to make room in canals for stormwater, local agencies in the half-century old system, particularly those in western Broward, got slammed with local flooding. For the second day in a row, Sawgrass Mills, the massive shopping mall in Sunrise that is a major tourism draw, remained closed from flooding parking lots.
“You’re always at the will of mother nature,” Mitnik said in a press briefing Wednesday. “She has the ability to outperform anything that you can construct.”
While the soggy conditions put an abrupt end to what had been a scorching wildfire season, it may also cut short nesting season for wading birds. Dry conditions had improved nesting around Lake Okeechobee, where the number of birds last year hovered under 3,000 but this year shot up to nearly 14,000. On the flip side, the rain may help freshen Biscayne and Florida bays, where seagrass die-offs covered thousands of acres. Salinity rose above levels considered healthy in Biscayne Bay in April and in Florida Bay at the end of May.
Rainfall through Thursday was about 475 percent above normal, just days after the rainy season officially began May 29. For the next few days, conditions don’t look much better.
Thursday afternoon, the National Weather Service in Miami issued severe thunderstorm warnings for most of the coast in Miami-Dade. Gusts reaching 55 mph were possible. Heavy rain should continue through Saturday, with much higher local amounts possible and triggering street flooding. But there is some good news: by the weekend, NWS meteorologists say the season should settle into its familiar summer pattern of afternoon showers.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich