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Record flooding forces hundreds to flee homes east of Tallahassee

Tim McDonald turns his kayak onto Withla Bluffs Way in eastern Madison County on Thursday to check on his house.

Associated Press

Tim McDonald turns his kayak onto Withla Bluffs Way in eastern Madison County on Thursday to check on his house.

LEE — When Carl Lee last saw his house built on stilts, the Withlacoochee River had crept within 6 inches of the floor while lumber and stray Christmas ornaments were bobbing in the floodwaters.

Lee, 68, said the river still hadn't crested when a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boat rescued him and his three dogs a day earlier.

Lee said it's just a coincidence he decided to settle down in the town that shares his name when he retired. He said water management officials had assured him he would be safe in a home perched 15 feet above the ground and 50 to 60 feet from the river's edge.

He is among hundreds forced from their homes by river flooding across the top of Florida over the past two weeks. The focus Thursday moved from the Panhandle, where floodwaters were receding, to rivers that were still rising in rural areas farther east including Lee, a small town in Madison County about 65 miles east of Tallahassee.

Initial reports so far show the rising waters have destroyed or caused major damage to nearly 200 homes and minor damage to more than 500 in Florida, causing two deaths and leaving one person missing. The damage toll is expected to increase because officials haven't been able to reach some flooded areas and rivers are still rising in others.

Lee's television wouldn't get a picture when he got up Wednesday morning — which might have served as a clue that the river had already submerged the satellite dish mounted below floor level. But he paid no heed, because passing clouds and bad weather often knock out the signal.

Not feeling good, he didn't look out the window until that afternoon when he got a call from the Sheriff's Office asking how to find his house.

"I asked them why, and they say, 'Because you're getting ready to get swamped,' " Lee said.

Authorities sent a helicopter that found him waving a white towel from his balcony. Then came the rescue boat.

"I had my red Pontiac outside the gate, and just a couple inches of the Pontiac were showing," Lee said. "I know it's going to be one heck of a mess." Lee said he does have flood insurance.

"We've had river flooding before, but we've never had anything like this," said Jim Stanley, emergency management director for Madison County.

Stanley estimated 100 Madison County homes have been affected by floodwaters from the Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers. The Withlacoochee crested at a record 89 feet near the Florida-Georgia state line, topping the mark set in 1948 by 4 feet.

Most damage recorded so far has been in the Panhandle. The assessments don't yet include Madison County and other areas now being affected in the sparsely populated region east of Tallahassee.

U.S. 90, one of two major east-west routes across North Florida, is closed at the Suwannee River bridge just east of Lee. Sections of Interstate 10, which carries most of the east-west traffic through the region, could be closed if floodwaters keep going up, though as Thursday wore on, officials grew confident I-10 would remain open.

Gov. Charlie Crist has declared a state of emergency for 26 counties and some shelters have been set up, including Lee's fire station. Carl Lee, though, was the only evacuee there Thursday.

Dianne Beck of the Lee Fire Department said most people driven from their homes are staying with friends or relatives.

"This flooding broke the 100-year flood line. It has run into places where it never has run before," Beck said. "A lot of homes are total losses. A lot of people got out with nothing but the clothes on their backs."

Record flooding forces hundreds to flee homes east of Tallahassee 04/09/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 9, 2009 11:17pm]
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