Hurricane Irma swamped east Hernando County last year. After a rainy summer, Withlacoochee River flooding could be even worse.

Published September 6 2018
Updated September 6 2018

RIDGE MANOR — For most of his seven summers at his home on Cyril Drive, 71-year-old Ralph Cocchi could walk across his back yard, down four stair-steps and over the three big rocks that lead to the edge of the Withlacoochee River, and pick his way to the other side with little trouble.

Then last year, Hurricane Irma flooded the river, and Cocchi found himself using a canoe to get from his house to State Road 50. A year later, the flood’s scars remain: the cracked, skewed concrete of the once-flat dock out back; the shadow of the waterline left on the lower half of the shed.

As the anniversary of Irma arrives, along with the peak of the hurricane season, Hernando County has been only brushed by a tropical system, but rainfall amounts are way over where they were last year. Already, the river is in minor flood stage at Trilby.

The river is three feet higher than it was at this time last year, before Irma struck with its fierce winds and more than eight inches of rain. In the days that followed, the glut of water flowed up from the Green Swamp and over the Hernando County line into Ridge Manor, the river rising 16 feet.

Last week, county commissioners received a report on the river conditions and learned why the Withlacoochee ebbs and flows like it does. The chilling assessment came from Mark Fulkerson, a senior engineer with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud.

"Heaven forbid we get a tropical system,’’ he said, "but if we get a tropical system, we’re going to have the potential to see more flooding than last year.’’

For county officials, who are always assessing their response to disasters, the report was a reminder of the river’s natural fluctuations that they cannot control. The river rose six feet in July, Fulkerson said, as he showed a chart of rain impacts on river levels over the past two years.

"These rises and falls, they’re due to rainfall,’’ he said.

Cocchi expects a big flood sooner or later, and says he doesn’t fear it — he survived once, he’ll survive again. But he gets a serious look on his face when he considers the swelling river running by his backyard.

"When I first saw this river, I laughed. ‘You can’t call that a river. It’s a puddle,’" he said. "Now I don’t laugh anymore."

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Fulkerson’s presentation included a photo snapped more than a mile from the Withlacoochee River in 1933. It showed a building in "downtown Trilby" over the Pasco County line, with water several feet high on the walls during what he called one of the worst documented flooding incidents.

In his years with Swiftmud, Fulkerson said he has learned about studies done time and again to determine what the agency might do to divert floods, save waterfront neighborhoods and stockpile water for future use. One study considered allowing the Withlacoochee River watershed to flood over into the Hillsborough River watershed, where the two meet. Another suggested the opposite.

Still other studies considered tweaks in water flow and water storage to see if they could save residents along the river from the inevitable floods.

But the proposed solution always sounds better than the reality, Fulkerson said.

Scientists determined that, by changing the river to impact water levels, "we’re going to destroy the diverse ecology that is the Green Swamp,’’ Fulkerson said.

The Withlacoochee is the third longest river in the state at 160 miles, and its watershed covers 2,000 square miles — all or part of eight Florida counties. The river flows south to north because the Green Swamp is 100 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, where the river dumps out in Citrus County.

About a third of the watershed is conservation land, which prohibits over-development near the flood-prone areas. The watershed, Fulkerson explained, stores rainfall and filters run off.

"What I have learned," he said, "is that we don’t have as much control as we think we have of a river like the Withlacoochee. What we need to do is keep people out of the flood plain and not build in these areas.’’

Sumter County resident Chester Bradshaw did not buy what Fulkerson was selling at last week’s commission meeting. For decades, he and other river advocates have argued that governments can take actions to redirect water flow and diminish flooding.

He called Fulkerson’s presentation of the facts inaccurate and misleading.

Recently, Bradshaw has encouraged local governments to join together to find solutions. He hoped for support from Hernando County commissioners, but got little. Commission Chairman Steve Champion suggested Bradshaw share his historical information with Swiftmud.

Bradshaw said he was done with the water management agency and is dealing with the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, a coalition of officials who work on issues impacting the region.

• • •

The county closed seven roads in eastern Hernando neighborhoods on the Withlacoochee after the late summer rains. No homes are threatened yet, but the tropical weather season is beginning to produce named storms that capture the attention of local residents.

In a news release sent out on Monday, Hernando County warned those along the river of the potential danger.

"Residents living along the river, and those that live in low-lying, flood-prone areas are urged to closely monitor river levels and take precautions as needed to protect life and property. Be prepared to evacuate to higher ground if necessary,’’ it said.

Last week, water encroached on properties in and near Talisman Estates, a neighborhood upstream from where the river runs by the Cocchi home. Most of the yards there were still dry, but residents looked at the Withlacoochee with a wary eye, remembering how Irma’s rains swelled it last summer.

Of the dozen homes the county deemed officially or potentially "substantially damaged" during Irma, nine suffered from flooding near the Withlacoochee. At least five were in or near Talisman Estates.

Back then, water consumed properties on Talisman Street, including one left with a destroyed back porch, a flooded van and dead fish left behind by the waters. Last week, Jason Bailey was at that house, taking a break from working on the van and wiping his hands on a rag.

He and his girlfriend, 41-year-old Tina Jernigan, got the place a decade ago, when a friend needed to get rid of it for cheap.

They’d heard about flooding around here. It’s impossible to ignore in Talisman Estates, where the Withlacoochee slices just to the south and kicks one watery tendril a couple of streets to the west. But they didn’t realize how bad it could get until last September, when they rode out Irma in a shelter, then came home to find their home had become an island.

"I see it coming up," Bailey said of the river’s level now. "And it ain’t gonna be long. I think it’s gonna flood again."

They’d move if they could. But Bailey, 55, and Jernigan are both on disability, they said, and they don’t think they could afford to get away from the river.

The water has started rising, covering roadsides a couple of blocks away. But until a storm comes, all there is to do is talk about it.

"Oh, when the storm comes, we gonna be in hellacious," Jernigan said.

Bailey leaned against the van. "Now I’m lookin’ for a boat."

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434. Contact Jack Evans at [email protected] or follow him @JackHEvans.