PALM HARBOR — Jim Purdue and Lisa Johnston were in evacuation mode.
Rainwater completely surrounded their Baldwin Road home. They couldn't open the front door because the murky water would seep into their home. Water rushed onto the back patio, sweeping snakes and crawfish to their doorstep and leaving a raunchy odor in the porch carpet.
But instead of a hurricane or tropical storm, the couple was preparing to flee an October rainstorm that dumped several inches of water on their Palm Harbor neighborhood. The precipitation caused the natural wetland area around their and their neighbors' homes to overflow.
"We were a couple of inches of rain away from moving to a hotel," said Purdue, 59.
The problem is nothing new. For decades, this Palm Harbor neighborhood — located off County Road 1 just north of Curlew Road — has watched standing water in the wetlands behind their homes creep closer and closer.
And in the last one and a half to two years, they say, the problem has hit its pinnacle.
Dozens of decades-old neighborhood trees have toppled over as their roots decayed. Mosquitoes have swarmed residents' yards. Neighbors have found dead box turtles floating belly up.
One family's veterinarian has advised them against allowing their dogs outside for fear the animals' paws will transfer bird droppings, decomposing organisms and other germs from the standing water to the family's home, sickening them or their children.
A flurry of resident complaints has sparked an investigation by county officials, who have found that the homes, built individually on parcels of land rather than as part of a subdivision, have no drainage system.
The county also found that the houses are located in a bowl-shaped depression. FEMA maps show a flood zone nearby, but not where the homes sit. The area doesn't require flood insurance but is at potential risk for accumulating standing water.
All the flooding complaints led to the recent discovery of something officials believe might be exacerbating the problem. Someone — no one knows who or when — tapped into a pipe from Piper's Meadow, a subdivision built in the late 1980s behind this block of Baldwin Road. The pipe is that subdivision's main drainage route to a Curlew Creek outfall.
A search by the county's Building and Development Review Services department, which oversees construction, has failed to turn up a permit for the modified pipe, leaving officials at a loss as to how the structure was designed.
"Someone tried to use that line to drain out the bowl," said Kim Tracy, a Pinellas County stormwater manager. "When people go and add pipes and drains without doing a stormwater model to see how it's going to work, it can backfire on you."
It's possible, officials say, that the illegal pipe is pushing water out instead of taking water in. Or, because the modified pipe structure was raised a foot, it might be allowing extra water to stay in the bowl. Or the modified pipe may not be a factor in the flooding at all.
"It's not a matter of a county-owned system not functioning," Tracy said. "It's several circumstances coming together at one time."
The county dismissed residents' suspicions that improper drainage installed over the years at Piper's Meadow, which is built at a higher elevation than the Baldwin Road homes, and other nearby subdivisions has contributed to the ongoing runoff problems.
At least one longtime resident claims the county has been promising to fix the neighborhood's stormwater issues for years. What's more, they say, a county worker who recently visited the neighborhood to investigate their complaints told them the water level would drop as much as 1 ½ feet overnight if "someone" simply turned off a "valve" located on private property.
"There is no valve. There is no pipe. And if people have noticed recent changes, it's hard to attribute that to Piper's Meadow" or other nearby subdivisions, all of which have been around for years, Tracy said.
The county's next step, Tracy said, is to construct a stormwater model to evaluate the entire system, then develop options.
The only thing county officials are certain of is that it won't be an easy fix.
"You don't want to drain the bowl, because the environment suffers. What you want to do is find that balance on how it functioned before anybody had settled there," Tracy said. "Until we determine if this (the modified pipe) is really the cause of the problem, I can't make any commitment."
Families in the neighborhood say help from the county is their last hope for relief.
County officials believe a previous owner of the home JoDell Nauert and Terry Carter purchased in 2008 tapped into the pipe. The property didn't flood the first year. However, Carter recently showed a visitor a pile of colorful kayaks the couple and their three children keep at the ready to navigate the 5 feet of water that now fills their back yard after heavy rainfalls.
Carter, 46, and Nauert, 47, aren't engineers, but the lack of a remedy from the county drove them to attempt to use concrete to block water from flowing from the pipe, which is just south of their property, into their back yard. But it appears to be hopeless: They said water also rushes onto their property from other directions. The family hasn't seen the grass in their back yard since June.
"One of the reasons we moved in here was the wetlands and the animals," Carter said, adding that the family is mostly worried about the standing water's effect on the animals and plants. "The problem is with everybody telling us it floods like this every year. If it happens every year, why are the trees just now dying?"
Their neighbors Purdue and Johnston, live in fear of mold, falling trees or other household damage if a tropical storm or hurricane were to blow through.
Their goal, Purdue said, is to "get some type of drainage system out here so this place can be a livable home again."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.