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Amid fears of flooding, helping hands on the Anclote River

ELFERS — The Anclote River lapped at the road 10 feet from Rebecca Williams' yard on Selkirk Street. It was closer to Ron Tacy's house, just one foot shy of covering his floor.

"If it gets up to you," Tacy said to Rebecca just before noon Tuesday, "we're really in trouble."

Both have lived since the early 1990s at the corner of Selkirk and Calvert Avenue, where water flooded the cross-streets after Debby hovered over Tampa Bay, spilling a deluge. Neither has ever seen the river so high — not even during the 1993 no-name storm.

Rebecca's son and daughter, ages 10 and 6, splashed in the water turned red from the dirt roads.

"Get out of that water!" Her son listened. Her daughter kicked at a leaf underwater. "Come on, we have to go wash your feet with soap and water."

Rebecca had heard from friends that the river would eventually crest at 27 feet, half a foot higher than the current record, and well above the 20-foot flooding mark. She dreaded 6 p.m. High tide.

Her husband, Richard, took their army green skiff down Elfers Parkway, transformed from road to river, to check on neighbors.

Richard and his neighbor, Terrell Lawrence, tried to navigate currents as they swelled and collided. Where Ringgold Avenue met Selkirk and Elfers, a strong current tore debris south, eventually reaching Elfers' dead-end and depositing it into the Anclote.

Richard has another home on Elfers, south of Rebecca's. As they navigated their way to it, they spotted pieces of what remained in their neighbors' yards.

"Look at that car!" Richard pointed to a blur of red barely cresting the water, just the roof.

Richard wore no shirt and ripped denim shorts, and his tanned skinned was covered in faded blackish-gray tattoos. Lawrence's face was worried, but his jokes about bass fishing and river living were light.

Although Pasco County officials issued warnings starting Sunday and an official evacuation order Tuesday, some people refused to leave. Looters, Lawrence said. It made more sense to wait for the water to come inside. Then people would evacuate. Until then, they would guard their possessions.

Richard's pale blue house didn't have water inside. Not yet. But the river in his yard was waist-high, lapping up and over his porch. He climbed out of the boat, sucked air through his teeth at the cold water.

"We're supposed to be above the floodplain," Richard said. "Not this flood."

Richard and Lawrence are river people. They're the third generation of their families to live here, and they wouldn't trade it. But they love living on the river, not in it.

Richard brought canned Bud Lights from the house, handed them to Lawrence and walked into the yard. He squeezed between a boat tied to his house, filled with odds and ends — a bicycle tire, a plastic orange box — and climbed into the skiff, and they set off again, looking for neighbors.

As they went south toward the dead end of Elfers Parkway, neighbors waved from porches attached to houses on stilts. One man called, "Ahoy, matey!" They passed a man in a red kayak trying to figure out how to rescue his dogs, perched in the window. They couldn't fit in the boat.

Richard and Lawrence turned at what was once a dead end, now an intersection painted with white-capped swells into the bloated Anclote.

As they headed back toward the dry land near Rebecca's home, they passed a man standing on his front porch, one hand gripping a green, pocked plastic kayak. His teenage daughter stood next to him, her hair pinned up, a soaked, whimpering yellow Labrador mix in her arms.

The man, Marty Hieftje, begged Richard and Lawrence to take him, his dog and daughter, Katelyn, across the river. The three were soaked, tired, dirty. They couldn't swim it, carrying the dog, and the current clutched, dragging them when they tried to wade.

Richard and Lawrence weren't sure what to do. They were fighting the current as it was, and the extra weight could turn them back toward the Anclote, too.

Hieftje was desperate. He just needed to hold onto the boat, he insisted. He could wade if he could just hold onto their boat.

They steered toward him. Katelyn climbed into the kayak and pulled the Labrador, Delilah, in with her. Hieftje waded, one hand on the kayak, the other on the edge of the skiff, near the middle. His legs dragged behind him, and he nearly lost his shorts. He had to kick his legs forward to keep them on.

Richard and Lawrence were tense, their eyes on the nearby shore, where Hieftje's wife and other daughter waited, watching, unable to help.

Hieftje grinned even as the boats swayed and bashed his tired arms. It didn't matter. Someone had saved him.

Mary Kenney can be reached at mkenney@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6247.

Amid fears of flooding, helping hands on the Anclote River 06/26/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 2:56pm]
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