Friday, January 19, 2018
Transportation

Hernando County to examine why crucial roads were swamped by Tropical Storm Debby

As floodwaters from Tropical Storm Debby recede from swamped highways and byways in Hernando County, questions remain in their wake.

Why did two major roads remain underwater and closed for days?

Is there anything that can be done to gain the upper hand for the next time Mother Nature opens the skies?

And, while U.S. 41 south of Brooksville didn't flood, did the project to widen the road in the early 1990s contribute to the severity of flooding in the Imperial Estates mobile home park on Powell Road?

Debby's deluge and the ensuing runoff from neighboring property swamped all four lanes of the Suncoast Parkway just south of U.S. 98. At one point, the water over the northbound lanes was at least 5 feet deep. Though the southbound lanes were reopened Wednesday morning, the northbound lanes remained closed, more than a week after Debby stormed through the area.

Meanwhile, floodwaters reached several feet high over a section of Spring Hill Drive east of California Street. The water made the entrance to the Hernando County Detention Center inaccessible, and kept the busy arterial road closed for a week.

State and county officials say they plan to study the issues or, in the case of the Florida Department of Transportation and concerns raised about U.S. 41, have already started.

Completed in 2002, the parkway was designed to handle a significant rainfall even like Debby, said Christa Deason, spokeswoman for Florida's Turnpike Enterprise.

The design met the requirements for a 100-year storm event, set by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. But the rainfall from Debby, Deason noted, exceeded Swiftmud's parameters for a 100-year event.

And there was another major problem, Deason said. Runoff flowed from other properties to the north and east, causing the water levels on the road and in a large adjacent retention pond to continue to rise for several days after the storm passed.

"Without all that extra water, chances are it would have handled the flow just fine," Deason said. "We can't engineer property we don't own."

By Tuesday, large pumps had removed as much as 90 million gallons from the pond to make room for water on the road. Deason said engineers will work with the water management district to determine what, if any, changes are needed to the area to help prevent flooding in the future. The review will take about two months.

During the flooding, motorists have had to deal with pre-parkway conditions, using U.S. 19 or other routes, such as U.S. 98. The stretch of the parkway between State Road 50 and U.S. 98 handled about 5,400 trips a day in 2010-11, the latest fiscal year for which figures are available.

The Tampa Bay Times showed Dr. Qing Lu an aerial photo taken Friday of a still-swamped parkway. Judging from the photo and the fact that a major modern highway that serves as an evacuation route had to be closed for more than a week, it seems clear that some mitigation measures will be necessary, said Lu, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of South Florida.

"Either additional drainage facilities need to be provided to divert the excessive water to other areas, or the highway profile needs to be elevated at this section," Lu said, adding that the latter strategy would likely be expensive.

• • •

It's too early to tell what, if anything, the county might do along the eastern end of Spring Hill Drive, said county engineer Brian Malmberg.

After Debby passed, the county brought in a pump to push water to a nearby retention pond on adjacent Hernando County Airport property. Because the main entrance to the jail was swamped, deputies had to book prisoners at the Sheriff's Office and have them transported in a high-clearance vehicle that could traverse another access road that also had some water over it.

A meeting is set for July 16 to review all of the road closures in the county forced by Debby's floodwaters and consider options, Malmberg said. An arterial road such as Spring Hill Drive would take priority among flooding mitigation projects.

"I'm sure something can be done, but we have to look at it in depth," Malmberg said.

Figuring out a solution is one hurdle, he added; finding funding would be another.

Powell Road just west of U.S. 41 also flooded. Malmberg said he doesn't think that the project to widen 41, completed in the early 1990s, had anything to do with that problem.

"These are low-lying areas that are expected to flood in a rain event" like Debby, Malmberg said.

• • •

By Tuesday, the water at Imperial Estates had receded enough for residents to survey what is, in most cases, catastrophic damage, said Woody Wirtz, whose family has owned the park since 1976.

"They're trashed," Wirtz said as he surveyed trailers on the northeast side of the park, the stench of mildew and muck hanging in the humid air.

Wirtz said his family warned the state Department of Transportation at the time it started the U.S. 41 expansion that building up the road would dam up water in the area. Now the Wirtzes are hopeful that the department will figure out what changes can be made to keep water moving north and west.

"I'm not as worried about the blame game as I am about fixing it," Wirtz said.

DOT drainage experts have already started an assessment of the area and expect to file a report by the end of the month, said department spokeswoman Marian Scorza.

News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]

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