Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Debby's unusual weather prevented Outfall Canal from halting Lake Tarpon flooding, officials say

The Outfall Canal was built to prevent flooding around Lake Tarpon, but Debby’s high tides hampered use of the canal gate.


The Outfall Canal was built to prevent flooding around Lake Tarpon, but Debby’s high tides hampered use of the canal gate.

As Tropical Storm Debby lashed North Pinellas with wind and rain last weekend, Lake Tarpon filled up like a bathtub. The water crept up higher than it had been in 40 years, topping seawalls and flooding yards and streets.

Roughly 800 homes surround the largest freshwater lake in Pinellas County. Nearly 100 nervous lakeside homeowners called the Southwest Florida Water Management District, all of them asking the same question:

Why wasn't the agency opening the gates of the Lake Tarpon Outfall Canal to drain the excess lake water into Old Tampa Bay, the way it had so many times before?

Unfortunately, it just wasn't that simple.

"The problem is, the tides and the wind are pushing water in while we're pushing water out," Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix said as the storm raged.

Normally, the water level in Lake Tarpon is 3 to 4 feet higher than the water in Tampa Bay. But unusually high tides were forcing bay water all the way up the 3-mile canal to the lake. Swiftmud kept having to close the canal gate to prevent saltwater from intruding into the lake.

For some lakeside residents, this led to more questions. After all, the Outfall Canal was built in the first place to prevent flooding around Lake Tarpon. And Debby was just a tropical storm. Would they be able to count on the canal to stop the lake from flooding their homes if an actual hurricane hit?

'Some were scared'

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug the canal in the late 1960s to stop flooding around the 2,500-acre lake after heavy rains.

The corps dredged a channel 200 feet wide and 12- to 15-feet deep from the south end of the lake to Old Tampa Bay. If the water in Lake Tarpon reaches a certain level, the gates are opened and water flows down the canal into the bay. That's what's supposed to happen, anyway. But it didn't happen when Debby arrived.

"The water has never been this high since the Outfall Canal was built," said Paul Kempter, a longtime resident of the Lakeshore Estates neighborhood who created, a website about the lake. "This was something nobody was used to seeing. Some people were very worried, and some were scared."

The tropical storm started pounding the region on Sunday. It wasn't until Wednesday that authorities were able to drain the lake back to its normal level. In the end, there were no reports of flooded homes, but plenty of streets were impassable to low-profile vehicles.

"My street was flooded with lake water," said Clearwater harbormaster Bill Morris, who lives on the west bank of Lake Tarpon. His daughter gave him a lift out of his neighborhood in her Ford F-150 pickup. "People who had the biggest vehicles just helped everybody else get to work."

Worse than Elena

The man who oversees the gates between Lake Tarpon and the bay has a message for lakeside residents: Don't worry about a repeat of the past week's events. It's unlikely to occur again in your lifetime.

"Every storm is different," said David Crane, structure operations manager for Swiftmud. "This weather event happened to hit the whole Lake Tarpon system in an unusual way that was hard to deal with."

In his view, a hurricane or another tropical storm probably wouldn't have the same effect.

So what was different about Debby?

"The most unusual part was the sustained winds, which didn't let up for days. The wind was coming directly up Tampa Bay, blowing straight up the canal," Crane said. "Usually we would anticipate that a storm would be moving. The wind would blow in different directions as the storm moved across the area."

Not even 1985's Hurricane Elena, which hovered in the Gulf of Mexico for days and brutalized Florida's west coast, caused Lake Tarpon to flood like Debby did, according to officials and residents.

With Debby, another factor was very heavy rainfall concentrated in a swath from Lake Tarpon up through Pasco and Hernando counties. Felix, the Swiftmud spokeswoman, said some areas got 14 inches of rain in 24 hours. Rain from the lake's 54-square-mile watershed, which includes Brooker Creek, kept pouring into Lake Tarpon.

"We worked around the clock to get the water down," Crane said. "Sometimes nature takes a different course. With Lake Tarpon, it's very unlikely that anything of this magnitude will happen again."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at or (727) 445-4151. Send letters to the editor at

Debby's unusual weather prevented Outfall Canal from halting Lake Tarpon flooding, officials say 06/30/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 30, 2012 1:49pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Video shows Polk child-care workers berating autistic child


    WINTER HAVEN — Police are searching for two childcare workers after a Snapchat video surfaced of them berating, taunting and throwing a backpack at an 8-year-old autistic child.

    Police are searching for two childcare workers - Kaderrica Smith, 26, and Alexis Henderson, 20 - after a Snapchat video surfaced of them berating, taunting and throwing a backpack at an 8-year-old Autistic child in Winter Haven. [Winter Haven Police Department]
  2. Rays morning after:Matt Andriese trying to put good finish on injury-marred season


    RHP Matt Andriese can't make up for the 2 1/2 months he missed due to a hip injury this season after getting off to a solid 5-1, 3.54 start.

    But he can use his last few outings to remind the Rays, and himself, of how good he can be.
    He did it the hard way Thursday, allowing three runs as four of the …

  3. Trigaux: Tampa Bay household income tops $50,000 but still makes us look poor

    Personal Finance

    The good news is Tampa Bay's median household income finally crawled above $50,000 last year. The bad news is that figure — officially $51,115 by new U.S. Census Bureau data — still puts the Tampa Bay region as the poorest of the nation's 25 largest metro areas.

    Tampa Bay still has the lowest median household income among the 25 most populous metro areas, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
  4. Oh, Florida! Irma's gone, but she left behind plenty of lessons for us


    I don't want to make light of the misery and death that Hurricane Irma inflicted on Florida this month. A lot of it was ugly, and some of it was downright criminal. We saw greed and pettiness on …

    A Fort Myers woman who'd recently undergone a double-organ transplant painted a sign that said, "HOT SINGLE FEMALE SEEKS SEXY LINEMAN TO ELECTRIFY HER LIFE" and sure enough, she got her power turned back on. [Photo from video]
  5. Florida education news: Makeup days, accountability, charter schools and more


    MAKEUP DAYS: The Pasco County school district alters the daily schedule of 11 schools to make up teaching time missed because of Hurricane Irma, avoiding the …

    With students back in school after Hurricane Irma, schools across Florida begin scheduling makeup days for missed classroom time.