When Cassie and James Nisewonger went to sleep Sept. 15, the vacant lot next to their home in Pace was a normal subdivision lot, covered in grass.
But as Hurricane Sally stomped through the Panhandle on Sept. 16, the yard fell away as if a trapdoor had opened in the ground.
Left behind was a massive washout that swallowed their mailbox, their yard and ate away at the pavement from the cul-de-sac in front of their house. The lot next door was gone.
Six days later, what looks like a miniaturized canyon roughly 75 feet from their house was still widening with every rainfall.
“Basically, our whole lives are on pause,” Cassie said a week after the storm hit.
She and her husband stood next to the yawning clay mouth on Tuesday. They have two kids ages 6 and 4 who they constantly watch if the family is outside. They have an Australian Shepherd dog named Miley they can’t let off the leash.
The Nisewongers have called their homeowners’ association, Santa Rosa County officials, the mayor of nearby Milton and other agencies for help.
So far, officials have been stumped as to what exactly to do next, the Nisewongers said.
Cassie’s parents bought 50 or so sandbags that the Nisewongers filled with sand to form a barricade in front of the washout to direct any other water flowing down the residential streets away from the hole and into the subdivision’s drainage system.
Neighbors who noticed their efforts pitched in to help and filled Target and Walmart bags with sand. The homeowner’s association placed a temporary barricade at the end of the street where the Nisewongers live. Other neighbors re-directed Santa Rosa County District Schools buses away from the area.
But what happens to the hole?
“This is our home. I don’t want to wake up not here tomorrow,” Cassie said.
The Nisewongers were not the only ones affected by the raging water.
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Barely a quarter of a mile up the street, Louise and David Lockerby’s wooden fence bows outward from the force of the water that flooded their backyard pool, ran down their front yard and washed out the underneath of the sidewalk.
The Lockerbys moved into what they call their dream house about six months ago. The couple have two children of their own, ages 4 and 8, and are from Scotland. They have never experienced a hurricane.
As Hurricane Sally began its trek through the Panhandle a week ago, Louise opened a closet to hide in with their kids.
She described a situation from movies she’s seen – and one Floridians are accustomed to – with howling winds and pummeling rains. David was outside with a pool skimmer, doing what he could to push water away from the house.
“The swimming pool saved the house,” he said Tuesday.
Water roaring down the incline swirled around the sides of their home and through the yard, turned left onto the road, flowed down the hill and took a right onto the Nisewongers’ street.
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Residents point to nearby Abernathy neighborhood, which is one of three interconnected neighborhoods including HaberSham, as the source of the flooding.
“All I know is the retention pond in Abernathy subdivision … filled up and flowed over,” said Donna Helms, president of the HaberSham Homeowner’s Association, on Tuesday. “It was too much water.”
Helms said the retention pond is owned and maintained by Santa Rosa County, who Cassie called in the first days after the flooding.
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“I can accept the damage of a hurricane, but what I can’t accept is a county retention pond destroying (lots),” David said.
The Lockerbys also worry about how water has de-stabilized the ground beneath the subdivision’s streets. They’ve been directing Santa Rosa school buses away from the front of their own home, where the soil beneath the sidewalk has collapsed.
“The thing I’m worried about is what we can’t see,” David said.