Hurricane Irma's fierce winds are becoming a memory, but the water the storm left behind has become a real threat on Hernando's east side.
The Withlacoochee River has crested just shy of 18 feet at Trilby — about 6 feet above flood stage — and will remain high for several more days. Floodwaters have inundated streets, yards and homes with muddy water.
Air boats, jon boats and other craft manned by uniformed officers and volunteers have been scouring the flooded areas to evacuate those willing to leave their homes.
This week, during the Hernando County Commission meeting, heaps of praise were lavished on the dozens of workers from emergency management, the county, fire rescue, law enforcement and volunteers from all walks of life for their efforts to get Hernando County through the hurricane.
But while officials were able to catalog the dozens of tasks necessary to bring the community through the hit from a Category 1 hurricane, they were also cautious to note that the threat is not over. They predicted that floodwaters on the Withlacoochee will not recede for days.
The flood also brought along a fish kill on the river because oxygen levels are naturally reduced as the river floods.
The county's emergency management director, Cecilia Patella, told commissioners "we are still very much in response mode'' due to the river flooding.
The county was placed under a state of emergency while the storm was approaching, and mandatory evacuations west of U.S. 19 were ordered. The declaration was extended twice as the river waters began to rise, and voluntary evacuation orders were issued.
Officials have detailed what will come in the days ahead as they continue to scour the county with assessment teams that are adding up the damages.
Storm debris trucks will make two passes through the county's roads in the coming days to collect branches, tree trunks and construction materials. Repairs and cleanups continue at county parks and offices. And the county's mosquito control forces are working to keep the biting insects at bay as they breed in standing water.
The relief and recovery work will grow in the coming days. Representatives from the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Development Centers told commissioners about resources available to help businesses and residents get back on their feet. County Administrator Len Sossamon said that county officials are working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to find a site for a Disaster Recovery Action Center somewhere in Hernando.
County officials praised a variety of workers. Among them was Craig Becker, the county's head of facilities maintenance, who spent the storm doing everything from shoring up the windows at the Emergency Operations Center with plywood to helping the jail with its generator when the power went out.
They told stories about the Oklahoma electrical line crew that was housed in the annex of the jail and the Duke Energy mini-city that popped up at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport, with everything from sleeping quarters to food servers — essentially a small city.
Commissioners also vowed to help neighborhoods that continue to have flooding problems. Several families came forward to seek assistance with ongoing flooding on their properties near Peck Sink, south of Brooksville. Officials acknowledged continuing issues with other areas that flood, including portions of Powell Road near U.S. 41 that had to be closed this past weekend.
While there were constant comparisons with previous storms and the problems they brought, Irma stood out in several ways. While the county sheltered nearly 2,000 people during hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004, Irma brought the need to shelter more than 5,000.
And while Hurricane Hermine last year created more than 10,000 cubic yards of debris to haul away, mostly from the coast, Sossamon noted that the estimate for Irma is five times that amount.
Hernando County Fire Chief Scott Hechler noted that his staff prepares for handling emergencies every day, so they were ready for Irma.
"Everybody stepped up to the plate,'' said Kevin Carroll, deputy fire chief. "The people of Hernando County should be proud to know . . . that everybody made sure that this county was well prepared.''
As she and others rolled up their sleeves and sent people out to manage the crisis, Romano said, she knew she was asking a lot. But the response was more than she could have imagined.
"Our community has a great heart and soul,'' she said, "and that was shown.''
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.