BROOKSVILLE — The only way to ensure that the northern end of Suncoast Parkway won't flood when a tropical storm like Debby strikes again is to elevate the road in that area, officials said Thursday. And that won't happen until the second phase of the parkway is built.
In other words, not anytime soon.
But work will begin next year on temporary measures that could keep the road open — or at least minimize closures — when a similar storm blows through the region, said Christa Deason, spokeswoman for Florida's Turnpike Enterprise.
"We want to keep that road open as long as possible for our customers, whatever the event," Deason said.
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 County in late June. At one point, the water over the northbound lanes was at least 5 feet deep. The southbound lanes were reopened July 4, the northbound lanes the next day — 10 days after the storm slogged through the region.
Deason said a post-storm review confirmed what officials 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.
Another major factor was the runoff that flowed from properties to the north and east. That caused water levels on the road and in a large adjacent retention basin to continue to rise for several days after the storm passed.
The turnpike enterprise brought in large pumps to move water from the 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, making room for an additional 15 million gallons of water, Deason said. 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.
"Hopefully pumping won't be necessary, but if it is there's a safety valve for that," Deason said.
The work is expected to cost about $1 million and be completed by the start of hurricane season June 1.
During the flooding this year, motorists had to deal with preparkway 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 parkway is also an evacuation route for west-central Florida.
Plans for the second phase of the parkway, into Citrus County, include an overpass at U.S. 98, which will raise the segment of the road flooded during Debby. The turnpike enterprise is still in the process of obtaining the right of way for the project, and the funding source is unclear, so construction is years away.
In the meantime, Deason said, "Hopefully we won't see another Debby or any of her sisters."
Reach Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431. On Twittter: @TMarreroTimes and @HernandoTimes.