Forecasters predict a busy 2013 hurricane season, and that could be enough to send chills up the spine of anyone who felt the fury of Tropical Storm Debby 11 months ago.
Record rains flooded homes and closed major thoroughfares, including portions of Spring Hill Drive, the Suncoast Parkway and Mariner Boulevard.
Even as the storm's final raindrops fell and phones rang off the hook at the county's public works office, state and local officials began to assess, design and construct road and drainage improvements that could reduce or alleviate flooding in any future storm.
With hurricane season having started Saturday, some of the work has been completed. Other projects are on the drawing board and will be finished as plans are finalized and funding becomes available.
"We've got good plans for the future,'' said Brian Malmberg, the assistant county administrator for operations. "We just have to keep on picking them off one at a time.''
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Some of the most indelible images from Debby's deluge are aerial photos of a flooded Suncoast Parkway.
The rainfall and ensuing runoff from neighboring property swamped all four lanes of the toll road just south of U.S. 98 in northern Hernando County. At one point, the water over the northbound lanes was at least 5 feet deep.
Massive pumps were brought in to draw water from an overwhelmed retention basin adjacent to the roadway and the Suncoast Trail. The southbound lanes of the highway, which serves as a hurricane evacuation route, reopened July 4; the northbound lanes opened the next day, 10 days after the storm slogged through the region.
Officials from Florida's Turnpike Enterprise said the road and its drainage structures worked as designed to handle a 100-year storm event. The problem: Debby's rainfall exceeded what's expected in such a storm. Officials announced plans to expand the retention basin, but said raising the roadway would have to wait.
That plan has changed. The basin expansion and roadway elevation have been incorporated into a project to resurface the parkway from State Road 50 to U.S. 98 that is under way.
"Since (the enterprise) was already wrapping up engineering and design for the pond work and paving operation, it was an opportune time to go ahead and add raising the roadway profile to the same contract," said enterprise spokeswoman Christa Deason. "The added benefit is that in the unlikely event of another rain occurrence as significant as Debby, parkway operations and trail access will not be affected."
Crews will be working on the $11.3 million project during heart of hurricane season, though. The pond and road elevation will be finished by September, Deason said. The rest of the work will end next spring.
A similar strategy is in the works to help one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Debby.
About a dozen mobile homes in the Imperial Estates mobile home park, which sits near the northeast corner of U.S. 41 and Powell Road, south of Brooksville, were damaged by flooding. Several were declared total losses.
The owners of the park insisted that the project to widen U.S. 41 in 2000 caused the water to rise so high. Florida Department of Transportation officials dispute that claim, saying Debby's rainfall exceeded the 100-year storm for which the widening project was designed and permitted.
But that doesn't mean improvements can't be made to help the neighborhood, DOT officials say.
Next year, crews will install pipes under U.S. 41 and excavate an area on the west side of the road about a half-mile north of Powell Road to create more storage capacity for floodwater, said Megan Arasteh, a district drainage engineer for the department.
"That most likely will provide relief to Imperial Estates for storm events higher than the 100-year," Arasteh said.
The improvements have been added to a project already in the design phase to resurface about a 1.5-mile stretch of the highway between Powell and Pine Cabin roads. The total estimated cost is between $3 million and $4 million. Construction will begin in the fall of 2014.
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Recently Malmberg, the assistant county administrator, presented the County Commission with a five-year plan for transportation improvements, and one piece of that was a map showing the locations of more than a dozen planned storm water management projects.
Months earlier, Malmberg had been working from a map that depicted all of the complaints from residents regarding issues with Debby.
Not coincidentally, many of the dots overlap. Nearly all of the county storm water projects planned for the next five years are designed to fix drainage issues that became apparent during Debby.
County crews have been in repair mode ever since, replacing culverts, increasing the capacity of retention ponds and studying other ways to divert water to keep neighborhoods and roadways higher and drier.
A preliminary study of Powell Road, which flooded east and west of U.S. 41, is under way to determine how to mitigate future flooding, especially west of U.S. 41, Malmberg said.
"The long-term fix is probably associated with major roadwork,'' he said.
But simply raising the road could aggravate storm water issues for property owners on either side of the road, he said.
Elsewhere, ground breaking for Phase 1 of a major storm water project to help drain south Brooksville is coming in the next several weeks. Work to build a large retention pond will soon begin on a parcel across from the county Transportation Services office on E Jefferson Street, near the Sheriff's Office community center.
When work on that pond and three others scattered around south Brooksville is completed, many of the neighborhood's drainage issues will be resolved, Malmberg said.
Parts of Dogwood Estates, near Brooksville Country Club at Majestic Oaks, flooded in the storm, and an outside engineer is designing fixes for that area, including the expansion of a retention pond and raising a road. The improvements should be done by the 2014 storm season.
Other improvements are slated to be addressed in the 2017-18 fiscal year, according to the five-year plan. Malmberg said improvements are put on the schedule to allow his staff to organize its work and look for funding.
While the county collects a storm water tax from property owners, officials try to use that money in conjunction with other funds, such as grants from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The FEMA help alone accounts for hundreds of thousands of dollars for storm-related fixes, Malmberg said.
While he said the county wants to fix as many of the problems as possible, not everything made the list.
The major flood in front of the Hernando County Detention Center, which submerged cars on Spring Hill Drive, is not on the schedule. A fix would be a major undertaking, and, as the county discovered a few days into the road closure last year, using a pump to dump the water on adjacent airport property alleviated the problem, Malmberg said.
Neighborhoods like the low-lying areas around Quarterhorse Lane, southwest of Brooksville, where some residents had to evacuate during Debby, are simply out of luck.
"It's a bowl,'' Malmberg said. "There's nothing we can do.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434. Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.