Friday, April 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Even a weakened Irma leaves its mark on Pasco

It was a Category 5, a Category 3, a tropical storm. It was Hurricane Irma, and she turned out to be a little fickle by the time she touched Pasco County.

But she had strong breath.

The eye of Irma passed over Dade City early Monday morning, and the majestic oak trees around town couldn't withstand the fierce gusts, even though the wind didn't reach the velocity levels originally predicted.

Regardless, more than 100,000 utility customers lost electricity across the county, and Duke Energy said it didn't expect all service to be restored in Pasco until Friday night. Downed trees and power lines also shut down portions of 51 roads and more than 100 more streets had limited access because of standing water.

A day after the storm, Pasco County Administrator Dan Biles got a firsthand look at what a tropical drenching can mean in low-lying Elfers. People gathered on their porches, their homes surrounded by water, but declined to leave the Anclote River Estates neighborhood.

"Historically, it's flooded there, and it's a way of life there, I guess,'' Biles said.

The county had advised nearly 890 residents in Anclote River Estates, Anclote River Acres and others in the vicinity to seek higher ground because of the expected stormwater from Irma spilling into the river. The flood warning was scheduled to remain in effect until Friday, when the Anclote was expected to recede below the 20-foot mark, according to the National Weather Service.

In an attempt to curb flooding, Pasco County sent crews with pumps to Elfers Parkway, the Thousand Oaks neighborhood in Trinity and to the Worthington Gardens area of Lutz/Land O'Lakes, which faced rising water from Cypress Creek.

• • •

Monday afternoon in Dade City, Sandra Cunningham stood in her back yard on Church Avenue, Starbucks chilled mocha in hand, and stared at the broken water oak that crashed through her roof into her bedroom.

"Oh mercy," Cunningham murmured. She took a few steps for a different angle. "Oh, mercy."

Hurricane Irma targeted Dade City, its weakened eye passing right over town in the early morning hours Monday — right at about the point where the storm was downgraded from Category 2 to Category 1.

"You could feel it blowing," said Homer Bryant, a disabled veteran who stayed home with his 90-year-old mother, tracking Irma's path on a cell phone.

When residents emerged, they found massive trees blocking the major thoroughfares, smaller ones dragging down power lines, and still others littering yards and parks.

Linda Ray weathered Irma in Ridge Manor, fearful the winds would peel back the roof of her mobile home, or the tallest trees would take it out. When she returned, her home was fine, but her 82-year-old mom's house had half the roof in the back yard.

"I pulled in this morning and saw this and thought, 'Oh, man,' " Ray said, adding she was glad to have evacuated her mom with her. "It really freaked me out."

But the house wasn't leaking, Ray said, so the plan was for her mother to return, wait for the power to come back on and figure out what to do.

Cunningham hadn't decided whether to stay in her home, with the tree splitting her roof and the flooded rooms below. She said she owns a property maintenance business, and has plenty of contacts to get good contractors out for repairs.

She contemplated staying, as her 100-pound mastiff-hound-pitbull mixes Mac and Toby don't do well with others. They're why she didn't seek shelter from the storm, too.

Instead, she spent the time in her living room, away from the side of the house where she anticipated the tree could smash in.

"It's going to be a project," she said. But she was calm about the situation. "It's nature. It's the way it's supposed to be."

She paused and chuckled.

"I needed this tree out anyway, because my pool is always cold," she said. "Material things can be fixed and replaced."

• • •

Tom Kelly does maintenance work at St. Thomas Aquinas Church on Old County Road 54 in west Pasco and decided at 3 a.m. Tuesday to check on the rising Anclote River that snakes around the church property. Things didn't look too bad at the time, said Kelly, 63. The retention pond spilled into the adjacent picnic area, but that sometimes happens after a heavy rain, he said.

He left at 5 a.m. and returned to the church three hours later to find water coming up through the draining grates in the parking lot.

"Two years ago, this whole place was under water except for the (church) building,'' Kelly said. "We'll see what happens this time. We put sandbags along the church. There's not much else we can do."

Fred and Ruth Taylor evacuated to Land O'Lakes for Irma, but then decided not to leave their Park Lake Estates home, even as water from the Anclote flooded the community's community entrance on Sawgrass Boulevard off Old County Road 54.

Some drivers turned around; others plodded through, even though the county warned against driving vehicles through standing water.

"Someone will get stuck here before long,'' Fred Taylor predicted.

It was the second time in two days the entrance had been obstructed.

People in the neighborhood came out to assess Irma's damage Monday morning and found the community entrance blocked by a fallen oak. Within minutes, neighbors made their way over with chain saws, brooms and leaf blowers to clean up the mess.

"They all just showed up, and that's the way to do it. Neighbor helping neighbor," said Al Kouture, 86, president of the Park Lake Estates neighborhood. "You got to do what you have to do. Can't wait around for someone else to do it."

In some respects, a Florida hurricane is frightening, but expected.

"We moved here in 1984, and any time we have a bad storm, this usually happens," said Sam Faugno, 69, as he and his wife, Anne, cleared debris from the yard in the Candlelight subdivision in Port Richey. "You go on (U.S.) 19 and nothing's going on, and you come in here and it looks like the end of the world.''

"Everyone I know was afraid for their lives," said Ryan Brenner, a Port Richey public utilities employee who used a backhoe Monday to clear city streets.

In downtown New Port Richey, the power outage meant some quick work at Ottaway's Parkside Ice Cream Parlor in downtown New Port Richey.

Owner Michael Ottaway and customer-turned-friend Regan Weiss worked up a sweat trucking 50 5-gallon tubs of ice cream three blocks to the walk-in freezer at Christina's Restaurant on Main Street.

"The camaraderie here in New Port Richey is just amazing," said Weiss. "Everybody just helps out."

After spending a couple of days in the Fivay High School shelter, Nina Castillega, 53, needed a walk in the park. She strolled through Sims Park in New Port Richey with her grandson, Steve, 6. The shelter, she said, "was wonderful," and she said she was grateful for the information from the county government's Facebook page.

"We didn't know what we were going to come home to, but it wasn't bad. The house was okay, and there was just some debris in the yard," Castillega said as she snapped pictures of a tree that had fallen on the path outside the West Pasco Historical Society.

• • •

By midday Monday, Dade City residents had begun to seek relief from the onslaught of debris and the lack of power. The roads began to fill up with cars and trucks. Families walked through town, and teens shot hoops in the parks.

Many stopped at the downtown Beef 'O' Bradys, which had the word "open" painted in big bold letters on all the plywood because it had remained open over the weekend.

But Monday afternoon, Beef's was closed. There was no power, leaving the food to begin defrosting and the beer to get warm.

Heather Crowson and Drew Cooner were among the residents who stopped by. They had hurricane snacks at home but were ready for some more substantial fare, having lost electricity themselves nearly 24 hours earlier.

They had limited damage at home and needed an outlet from their two kids, who were getting bored without their electronic devices. They left empty-handed, but planned to be back.

"At least we know how to get home now," Cooner said. "We've found all the blocked roads."

   
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