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Alafia River reaching historic flood levels in wake of Irma

By Christopher O'Donnell
A flooded home on River Drive in East Hillsborough Monday. The Alafia River is expected to reach 20 feet by Tuesday morning, a level it last reached in 1935, according to the National Weather Service. [Photo: Christopher O'Donnell]

LITHIA — With water from the Alafia River lapping against the wheels of his John Deere tractor, Mike Cribbs turned the starter key.

Nothing.

"We're going to have to jump it," he shouted.

Throughout Monday Cribbs had watched the Alafia River creep closer to his house. By 6:30 p.m., he knew it was time to get his cars and vehicles out of the path of the rising river.

He lives half a mile from the Alafia.

"This is the highest it's been since 2004," he said. "It's rising a foot an hour."

Residents of River Drive in east Hillsborough are used to the river flooding. Most houses are built on stilts and a canoe is a must-have to live there.

But some may have been caught out by the fast rising river Monday. With the river swollen by rains from Hurricane Irma and a high tide, several homes were partially flooded and only the sloped roofs of several storage sheds were visible above the flood waters.

According to the National Weather Service, the river was at 17.4 feet at 11 a.m. Monday. It floods when it exceeds 13 feet. It is expected to keep rising to 20.7 feet by early afternoon today.

The last time it reached 20.5 feet was Sept. 5, 1935, according to the Weather Service.

Most residents know not to park cars there when a flood is likely. Neighbors typically give one another warnings as waters rise. But at least two vehicles were partially submerged and one boat had escaped its mooring and was lodged in the branches of a tree. Some road signs were totally submerged.

After venturing out to buy some food for his dog, Brent Price was shocked by how quickly the waters had risen. Returning to his home by canoe, he took in the damage to his neighborhood.

"Yeah, that one didn't make it," he said, pointing to a partially submerged house with water lapping against the windows.

Price, a plumber and electrician who moved to Lithia from Pennsylvania a year ago, said the road typically floods two or three times a year but he never imagined it could flood "this much."

"Right there is the street sign," he said, pointing to two trees. "You can't see it now."

His home is built 8 feet above street level. By 7 p.m. Monday, there was just one foot of clearance from his porch to the flood waters.

As if that isn't enough, residents on the street lost power at about 6 p.m. Sunday.

They are now anxiously watching the river to see if it will keep rising.

"If it gets up as high as they say, I'll be the only one above water," said resident Rick Klingelsmith.

With his tractor finally running, Cribbs drove out of the water, turned on his hazard lights and turned onto Lithia Pinecrest Road looking for higher ground.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] Follow @codonnel_Times.