What we'll remember: Tropical Storm Debby deluged Hernando County with record rainfall

The rain gauges are empty, much of the water has receded, but Tropical Storm Debby's dousing will forever be etched in the record books and the memories of many Hernando County residents.

In parts of central Hernando, Debby dumped more than 15 inches of rain between June 23 and 25. And on June 24, a rain gauge near the Hernando/Citrus line registered more than a foot of rain. It was the highest one-day total ever measured at the 20-year-old gauge.

The record rainfall flooded roads, opened sinkholes and inundated homes.

As 2012 draws to a close, some property owners are still cleaning up. Public works officials, meanwhile, continue to consider what improvements are feasible to minimize the impact the next time a storm drops so much moisture.

• • •

Days after the rain stopped falling, weary residents started lining up for help.

Several hundred people showed up at a disaster recovery center in Brooksville to register for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Hundreds more called the agency's hotline.

In Hernando, 1,588 households registered with FEMA before the Sept. 6 deadline with hopes of being considered for assistance.

Of those, 1,392 were referred to a grant program that provides free money to low-income people who qualify. By October, 592 had been approved for a total value of some $1.7 million.

The other form of aid is Small Business Administration loans that must be paid back. Hernando residents submitted a total of 176 SBA applications. Of those, at least 52 were approved — nearly all for homes and the rest for businesses — for a total of more than $1 million.

Information regarding a few grant and loan applications that were still pending recently was not available last week.

Residents also were flooding the county with service requests.

Flooded or washed-out roads, swollen retention ponds spilling into yards, and sinkholes were turning up everywhere.

It didn't take long for county workers to put up all 300 traffic barriers they had to separate residents from danger, requiring officials to order more. The county ran out of sandbags, too.

The Engineering Department logged 217 calls for service the first day of the storm and a total of 510 the first week. The normal weekly call load is about 100.

For weeks, motorists endured detours as officials waited for water to recede and, in a some places, plugged sinkholes.

The eastern end of Spring Hill Drive was one of the busiest roads to close, shutting down the entrance to the Hernando County Detention Center. After Debby passed, the county brought in a pump to push water to a nearby retention pond.

Because the main entrance to the jail was swamped, deputies had to book prisoners at the Sheriff's Office in Brooksville and have them transported in a high-clearance vehicle that could traverse another access road that also flooded.

The storm came as the county was already working in conjunction with the Southwest Florida Water Management District on long-term water management plans. Using recently updated flood maps, the goal is to alleviate flooding and improve water quality by better handling stormwater runoff.

Once the studies are complete, the county will rank the projects based on "bang for the buck," then seek funding through grants and other sources, said county engineer Brian Malmberg.

In the case of Spring Hill Drive, it likely will be some time before a project begins to raise the road, build a drainage retention area, or both.

Relief for residents in the Dogwood Estates community northeast of Brooksville is closer to reality.

Many residents in the neighborhood off Croom Rood were cut off for days when roads flooded. A consultant is expected to submit a report that will offer half a dozen or so potential fixes, ranging in cost from about $100,000 to four times that, Malmberg said.

"Then we'll have to start looking for funding," he said.

Work is expected to be complete by March on the Peck Sink project that was heavily damaged by the storm. The $1.3 million project includes swales, lined ponds, piping and plants to treat the stormwater entering Peck Sink Preserve, off Wiscon Road south of Brooksville.

The county approved a change order of nearly $275,000 to repair the damage and tweak the design to make it less vulnerable to future flooding.

A stretch of Mariner Boulevard was the busiest road affected by sinkholes. It took 10 days for crews to make temporary repairs using fill dirt.

As equipment arrived at the site earlier this month and permanent repairs began, a new hole appeared, but it didn't lengthen the amount of time the road was closed.

County officials expect plenty of help from the federal government to cover the cost of many of the repair projects.

The county has submitted 18 reimbursement requests totaling nearly $908,000, said emergency management director Cecilia Patella. The county is responsible for covering 12.5 percent of that, and the state and FEMA pays the rest, so the total aid expected is about $794,000.

The good news: All but $25,000 has already been promised for payment, Patella said.

• • •

The owners of one of the hardest-hit mobile home parks in the county also got some good news recently.

After Debby's floodwaters submerged a dozen homes in Imperial Estates on Powell Road, south of Brooksville, Woody Wirtz said he was convinced that the problem in the park was caused — or, at the very least, made worse — by the widening of nearby U.S. 41.

Engineers with the Florida Department of Transportation visited Wirtz's park in the weeks after the storm. On Aug. 6, they drafted a letter saying they had studied the issue and concluded the neighborhood would have flooded even had 41 never been expanded from two lanes to four a decade ago.

The Tampa Bay Times reported on the contents of the letter after a department spokeswoman provided a copy.

The department, however, never mailed it.

Now officials say their initial conclusion was based on the new 2012 flood maps, which didn't accurately reflect how a storm like Debby and the ensuing runoff would affect the area near the six-lane road. They've developed a new model that factors in 15.5 inches of rainfall over five days and a saturated ground, department engineer Megan Arasteh said in an email.

"This is the model we are using to look at potential cost-effective and permitable ways the department can improve the flooding condition in the vicinity of Imperial Estates," Arasteh said.

It was good news for Wirtz, who has already hauled out several of the ruined mobile homes as he waits for an update from the DOT.

"I just hope they do the right thing," he said

As the DOT looks to alleviate flooding near the road, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise officials are about to embark on a project aimed at keeping floodwaters off the Suncoast Parkway.

The agency announced this month that work will soon begin on temporary measures along the parkway to keep the road open — or at least minimize closures — when a similar storm blows through the region.

Debby's deluge and the ensuing runoff from neighboring property swamped all four lanes of the parkway just south of U.S. 98 in northern Hernando. The southbound lanes were reopened July 4, the northbound lanes the next day — 10 days after the storm slogged through the region.

Officials said a post-storm review confirmed what they surmised even before the parkway opened: The road and its drainage structures worked as designed to handle a 100-year storm event, but Debby's rainfall exceeded what's expected in such a storm. Runoff flowing from properties to the north and east caused water levels on the road to continue to rise for several days after the storm passed.

The only way to ensure that the stretch of the parkway won't flood in a similar storm is to elevate the road in that area, an enterprise spokeswoman said this month. That won't happen until the second phase of the parkway is built into Citrus County.

The turnpike enterprise brought in pumps to move water from a large adjacent retention basin to a dry area to the north. The pumping required the closure of the Suncoast Trail, the bike path that runs between the road and the basin.

Crews will roughly double the size of the basin. Space will be cleared to the west of the basin to make way for pipes in case pumping is required, with the goal of keeping the trail open.

The work is expected to cost about $1 million and be completed in time for the start of the 2013 hurricane season — on June 1.

Reach Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes and @HernandoTimes.

For the past week, the Hernando Times has published recaps of the Top 10 stories of 2012 in Hernando County, as identified by the Times staff. They've appeared in no particular order. The series concludes today.

What we'll remember: Tropical Storm Debby deluged Hernando County with record rainfall 12/29/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 29, 2012 1:59pm]

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