Downpours on Sept. 27 and 28 dumped 4.4 inches of rain in Oakland. The worst flooding occurred at the Oakland-Tildenville Cemetery.
Ed Gardner stood at Geraldine Gardner’s gravesite in the Oakland-Tildenville Cemetery, staring at the wet ground. He was there just three weeks ago to bury his mother, and last week he was there taking in the devastating effects of the overnight rainstorm that flooded the cemetery Sunday, Sept. 27, and continued into Monday, Sept. 28.
Half of the cemetery, located just north of West Colonial Drive in Oakland, was underwater, and the town of Oakland has been working diligently to get the water pumped out and to find a permanent solution to the issue.
Oakland recorded 4.4 inches of rain overnight Sunday and another 1.5 inches Monday — creating a severe flooding situation in multiple areas of town. The worst flooding occurred at this cemetery, where several dozen gravesites were under water. One vault, belonging to the Rev. Mose P. Holmes Jr., lied at an angle, its top slightly askew.
“The ground had already been saturated from more than 4 inches of rain during the past month, and low-lying areas were inundated when the storm passed through,” town officials explained on the town’s Facebook page after the flooding.
The Oakland African American Historic Cemetery was not affected, the town said.
The town has been working closely with Tildenville Missionary Baptist Church, the owner of the Oakland-Tildenville Cemetery since the flooding occurred.
“The town takes this matter very seriously, as the Oakland-Tildenville Cemetery is a resting place for our community's beloved family members,” the town wrote on its Facebook page last week. “Pulte, the owner of the neighboring development and adjacent road, is currently pumping water from the cemetery. Town staff is on scene offering emergency assistance to the developer. Due to the serious and sensitive nature of this flooding issue, the town has called upon the developer to swiftly work on a permanent solution.”
Pulte issued its own statement last week to media outlets:
"Following the tremendous rainstorms that happened overnight and the resulting flooding discovered at the site this morning, our development team quickly implemented actions to remove standing water. Today, we also met with the town and the water management district to discuss long-term actions to address the flood-prone nature of the area, and have additional meetings scheduled to work towards a more permanent solution. While our community is not the source of the water, we share in the community’s commitment to preserving this historic site and being good neighbors where we build."
WORKING TOWARD A SOLUTION
Pulte had three pumps at the cemetery that Monday to pull the water away from the gravesites. The worst-hit area was in the northeast corner of the cemetery, which has seen flooding in the past.
Oakland Town Manager Steve Koontz said the town has been working to facilitate conversations between Pulte, the Florida Department of Transportation and the St. Johns River Water Management District. He and other town staff met with Pulte representatives last Wednesday.
“I’m not trying to lay blame,” he said. “I’m trying to find solutions and find the right persons to do the right task to get it fixed permanently.”
Koontz met with members of the Oakland-Tildenville Cemetery Board to hear the board’s concerns and share the steps the town is taking to help fix the issue. Sharon Ranson is president of the cemetery board; other members are church deacon Eugene Taylor, Don Holley and Kay Wade Wright.
“I wanted them to know the town was giving them our full support,” he said.
Ranson said the board shared three priorities when it met with Koontz. They asked the town to meet with the families of the deceased and tell them what will be done to remedy the situation, to find out who is going to pay for the damages at the cemetery, and to discuss FDOT’s involvement.
“We already know that 70% or more is coming from Pulte,” Ranson said. “We never had flooding before, even with hurricanes. We had trees knocked down, but we never had flooding. We hope Pulte will come in and put in a better drainage solution.”
Ranson’s family also has a plot in the cemetery.
“The best way to do it is to work with the (town) and the company,” Ranson said. “We’ll take it one step at a time and give them a chance to work on the plan. Right now, the board is neutral. We’re behind the families. We’re staying positive and working on a positive outcome.
“We believe in working in a positive manner,” she said.
Folks flocked to the cemetery early last week to survey the damage and see if their loved ones were in the flooded area.
AN OPEN WOUND
Frances Cannon has buried her parents, her brother, aunts, uncles and cousins in the Oakland cemetery. She said she is heartbroken over seeing many of their graves under water.
“That’s their home; that’s their bed,” she said. “That’s where they are for eternity. My mom didn’t know how to swim when she was on this earth, and now she’s underwater.”
Cannon said she hopes the drainage issues can be fixed soon.
“When they built the homes in that development next door, that’s when this started taking place,” she said. “For many years we have buried our loved ones out there and never this.”
She said she has learned that several people have spoken with an attorney about filing a class-action lawsuit. For now, she said, she is waiting to see what happens before taking any action of her own.
“We’re praying that everything will turn out to be the best,” she said.
Gardner said he already has joined the class-action lawsuit. He doesn’t want anyone else to suffer like he has in the past month.
For Gardner — whose father and brother also are buried in the cemetery — the grief has been compounded by several factors. He was unable to visit his mother prior to her death because of pandemic restrictions, and then at her graveside service, a pool of water from previous rains had to be pumped from his mother’s vault before her casket could be lowered.
“It was still a struggle to let her body be at rest, so that was heartbreaking,” he said.
He just wants to see the issue resolved.
“I think it’s a drainage problem, and a site development problem,” Gardner said. “The cemetery looks like it’s a drainage pond for the development. … They’re going to have to correct that drainage problem. I would like to see no more bodies (buried) out there until that’s corrected. And if it can’t be corrected, they need to move those bodies to another location.”
Town officials have issued statements on the town’s Facebook page almost daily since the flooding — providing information and updates on the situation and letting residents know what steps are being taken.
“The town takes this matter very seriously, as the Oakland-Tildenville Cemetery is a resting place for our community’s beloved family members,” officials wrote.
Pulte Homes, the neighboring development currently under construction to the north of the cemetery, started pumping water from the cemetery almost immediately; the town offered emergency assistance.
“Due to the serious and sensitive nature of this flooding issue, the town has called upon the developer to swiftly work on a permanent solution,” one Facebook statement read.
According to a Sept. 28 post, the town met with the cemetery board that day “to express our sincere apologies for the pain the community has suffered due to the flooding, to hear their concerns and to let them know the steps the town is taking to help fix this complex issue.”
Pulte Homes has been continually pumping water from the site.
When town staff noticed a potential contributing factor to the flooding, it plugged a pipe that had been installed as part of the development, according to one Facebook post.
In an Oct. 1 Facebook post, the town said officials had been in contact with Pulte Homes and its engineer, the St. Johns River Water Management System and FDOT — “to formulate a permanent fix for the drainage issues. We are committed to working toward a resolution with property owners, community members and state agencies.”
The town’s most recent Facebook post regarding the cemetery stated: “The town continues ongoing conversations with property owners, community members and state agencies to make progress toward a permanent solution on the cemetery drainage issue.”
Orlando resident Sasha Gipson started an online petition to gather signatures in a show of support after the flooding occurred.
She is related to nearly a dozen people buried in the Oakland-Tildenville Cemetery, and she said many of them were under water following the heavy rains.
“Me and my auntie were both down for days after going to the cemetery,” Gipson said. “It was devastating. … It really tugged at my heartstrings.”
By Monday evening, nearly 700 concerned citizens had signed the petition, and many commented that they had relatives — parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, brothers and sisters and children — buried in the cemetery.
“Resting places need to be protected,” one person wrote. “Our loved ones’ final resting place is all we have left besides our love and memories.”
“My loved ones are here,” wrote another. “It’s like an opened wound.”
“No family should have to see their loved ones’ final resting place like this,” a third person wrote.
Gipson said Monday she was waiting to hear the outcome of Tuesday’s meeting (after press time) between the town, the cemetery board members and family representatives before deciding what to do with the signatures.
“There are certain protocols we have to go through,” she said. “It’s not an overnight process, but we do expect it to be done in a timely and respectful manner. … It’s a very sensitive subject.”
To sign the petition, visit sign.moveon.org/petitions/protect-oakland-cemetery.
Ransom estimates there are more than 400 people at rest in the cemetery, but no one knows for sure since some were buried without headstones or markers before the cemetery became incorporated.
“That’s disturbing their peace out there,” Ranson said the deceased. “We buried them in peace, and we want them to stay in peace.”