Friday, March 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Flooding from Tropical Storm Debby causing problems in Hernando

As the water level continued to rise Sunday afternoon, Shirley Chai's nervousness turned to fear.

At first, Chai figured she would wait out the storm in the manufactured home she shares with a friend in Brookridge, a retirement community off State Road 50 west of Brooksville.

Then the lake that had formed over a portion of Brookridge Boulevard started lapping at her home's foundation. Soon water started pushing up through the air vents in the floor.

"I had to go," Chai said.

She called a neighbor for help, and three strangers came to the door. The man put Chai on her back, and a woman grabbed Shadow, Chai's miniature schnauzer, and carried them to safety.

She never got the people's names.

"I cried for half an hour," she said Monday afternoon as she waited at a neighbor's house for the water to recede enough to assess the damage at her own place.

Chai was one of dozens of Hernando County residents who had to be toted, trucked and even airboated away from homes flooded or threatened by rising water after Tropical Storm Debby hammered the county Sunday and Monday. With parts of the county receiving at least 10 inches of rain, the storm left high water that closed major roadways, flooded homes, washed out roads and opened up sinkholes.

The Brookridge area was particularly hard hit, recording the highest rainfall total in the Tampa Bay area — about 14 1/2 inches — according to measurements provided by Bay News 9. There was flooding in several locations throughout the Brookridge community, and residents had to be evacuated Sunday evening from about a half dozen homes near the intersection of Brookridge Boulevard and Fitzpatrick Avenue.

Several submerged vehicles sat abandoned, one of them nearly underwater.

"I've never, ever seen it like this," said Paul Petrowsky, a landscape company owner who has worked in the neighborhood for 32 years.

Elsewhere in Hernando, about a dozen homes were flooded in the Imperial Estates mobile home park off Powell Road, south of Brooksville.

"This is the first time I've ever gone down my lane in a rowboat," Imperial Estates resident Robert Bryda, 84, said.

Bryda woke up at 5 a.m. Monday with water surrounding his mobile home, just 6 inches shy of the door. His phone line was down, and Bryda, who lives alone, does not own a cell phone. After a neighbor helped him to dry land, Bryda said he was leaving Imperial Estates to stay with his daughter in Pasco County.

Nearby, off U.S. 41 north of Powell Road, brothers 16-year-old Josh Navarro and 20-year-old Luis Santana saw Troy Fielder, 84, struggling to get from his flooded house and yard to his car. The young men stopped and were able to reach Fielder, who had cut his foot, and rescue him.

On the north side of Brooksville, significant flooding was reported in the Clover Leaf Farms retirement community, the adjacent Clover Leaf Forest and nearby Lakeside Mobile Manor. Several residents lost power Sunday night, and service had yet to be restored by late Monday morning.

Water flooded some homes, threatened many more and covered numerous streets. All morning, residents on golf carts drove around, surveying the water and wind damage, remarking about how it was the worst flooding they had seen.

"We've never seen it quite this bad," said Tom Kriner, who has lived in the area for more than 12 years.

Beverly Morgan, 55, was forced to evacuate about 6:30 p.m. Sunday as water began creeping up the side of her mobile home, flooding her car, lifting up her propane tank and scattering her lawn ornaments.

The water was thigh-high by the time she left her house with her dog, Luci, and a change of clothes.

"I was worried all night last night because I didn't know what I was going to wake to," she said.

By Monday morning, she had learned that the water had gotten within 3 inches of entering her home, but it didn't flood her out. Her Lincoln Continental, while flooded, still started.

A few miles away, neighbors and deputies used john boats and an airboat Monday morning to retrieve fellow residents stuck in several homes beyond a flooded portion of Quarterhorse Lane, a dead-end road near Brooksville Regional Hospital lined with split-rail fences and horse pastures.

Quarterhorse resident Linda Tucker paced nervously as she waited for her elderly sister, a family friend and an in-home nurse to be brought to safety.

"I have more respect for people who have catastrophes than I did before," Tucker said.

Animals needed rescuing, too. Quarterhorse property owner Samantha Vitalone used an inflatable raft to lead her geldings, Usa and Max, as they swam to safety. The water eventually rose to the top of the pasture fence.

"They would have drowned by now," Vitalone said.

Later, the airboat delivered her and her family and their suitcases to dry land.

In Spring Hill, Mariner Boulevard near Claymore Street was closed Monday morning because several large sinkholes opened up in the area.

Sue Tomason, who lives on Captain Drive, off Mariner, said she woke up Monday to find several inches of water in her garage. Her neighbors also reported minor flooding.

"We've had some flooding before from thunderstorms, but I've never seen anything like this," Tomason said. "It's like a river overflowed."

A few blocks away, 15-year-old Anthony Steele and his friend, Jason Pikes, 14, rode their bikes around a 10-foot-wide sinkhole that had opened up on Claymore, near Lake Forest Drive. Celinda Jones, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, said she had seen several sinkholes in neighbors' yards.

"I'm worried," she said. "What do you do if one opens up next to your house? Pray, I guess."

Sinkholes were also reported at the Hernando County Airport on Taxiway A, the taxi strip that parallels the main runway, but the airport remained open.

Spring Hill Drive was closed from California Street to U.S. 41, and cars could be seen submerged in the flooded area.

In the same vicinity, "It's made our jail an Alcatraz,'' said Lt. Michael Burzumato, spokesman for the Hernando Sheriff's Office. "The jail is staying above water, but Spring Hill Drive is not.''

Northcliffe Boulevard near Central Park Drive in Spring Hill also was covered with water, and flooding in low-lying areas of Masaryktown caused deputies to mobilize to help with evacuations in the areas of Roosevelt Avenue, Hodza Street and Wilson Boulevard.

Joe Dwyer, 58, just moved into his Masaryktown home a month ago and made his first mortgage payment. He shared his modest white-paneled home with a friend and a small Maltipoo dog, Cookie, until Monday morning, when they were evacuated.

Dwyer's house, the first home he's ever owned, was filled with a foot of water and may have to be condemned because of water damage and related health risks.

"I've spent the whole morning crying," Dwyer said. "At first I didn't think we were going to have a lot of rain, but then between 2 and 4 p.m. on Sunday, it just tore it up."

Officials at the Sand Hill Scout Reservation, near Weeki Wachee, evacuated about 350 Scouts late Sunday to Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics in Spring Hill. While there were no dangerous conditions at the camp, the evacuation was ordered due to the threat of tornadoes.

The Florida Highway Patrol urged caution on several roads that were flooded, including Fort Dade Avenue at Citrus Way, U.S. 98 at the Suncoast Parkway and U.S. 98 at Cobb Road.

Numerous roads were reported to be washed out or impassable, including Sweet Gum Road, Ash Street and Harris Hawk Road.

County officials also noted several roads underwater and closed, including Old Crystal River Road, portions of Powell Road, Croom Road, Clinton Drive and Rosewood Drive.

Trees and power lines were reported down at Campground Road and McCloy Circle, north of Brooksville. And across the county, power company officials were still dealing with several outages Monday.

Peck Sink, south of Brooksville, where the county has spent $1.3 million to build a series of stormwater filtering structures, was submerged. Emergency Management asked for an updated damage estimate for purposes of reporting to the state.

Crews were mobilizing to assess damage throughout the county.

Late Monday, the American Red Cross opened an emergency shelter at the Ridge Manor Community Center on Cortez Boulevard. County officials were monitoring the nearby Withlacoochee River in anticipation of flooding in the coming days.

Information from staff photojournalist Will Vragovic is included in this report.

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