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Pasco emergency workers evacuate thousands in Debby's wake

NEW PORT RICHEY — Stephanie Gioeli was trying to get home. She drove as far as deputies would let her and then she parked on Trouble Creek Road, rolled up her jeans, held her tennis shoes in her hands and started sloshing through knee-high water. She passed two snakes. She walked faster.

"This area never floods," she said Tuesday afternoon, as Tropical Storm Debby lingered off the coast, sputtering rain. Debby dumped 15 to 20 inches of rain in recent days, causing flooding and massive evacuations that west Pasco hasn't seen since the hurricane season of 2004.

Gioeli hadn't been home since Saturday, when her husband mysteriously passed out and was taken to the hospital. She has been with him since, she said. She talked to neighbors Tuesday, heard about the flooding and raced home to get her cat.

"They said we're under water," said Gioeli, 39. She hoped her cat had jumped to a high, dry spot in the house. "I'll find out soon."

Her house is near the Cotee River, which flooded along with the Anclote River, which often floods. The Cotee rarely floods.

"Never," said Dottie Ackerman, 63, who has lived in the Mill Run subdivision for 12 years. "This is the worst we've ever had it."

Ackerman was one of an estimated 14,000 to 20,000 people living along the Anclote and Cotee rivers who were told to evacuate Tuesday. Rescue workers went door to door, telling people they needed to leave. Though it was called a mandatory evacuation, residents were not forced out if they chose to stay, but they were warned floodwaters could continue to rise.

"Our main goal is to get people out of harm's way," said Doug Tobin, spokesman for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

The power was shut down in the evacuation zone, which was Plathe Road on the north, Little Road on the east, Mitchell Ranch and Perrine Ranch roads on the south and Thys and Voorhees roads on the west. There were more than 7,000 residential and commercial addresses within that zone, said Pasco County spokesman Eric Keaton. He said the power was shut down because of the dangers of mixing electricity with the rising flood waters.

"It's a safety concern," he said.

The zone is expected to expand, with reports Tuesday of flooding east of Little Road.

Two shelters were available for evacuees. By Tuesday night, 33 people had fled to Chasco Elementary School in Port Richey and 47 were staying at the Mike Fasano Regional Hurricane Shelter in Hudson, Keaton said.

As Debby moves toward land at a glacial pace, the wind from the storm pushes the sea water toward land, giving resistance to flooded rivers trying to drain into the gulf. This means the flood waters here won't have an avenue of escape for some time, Keaton said.

"The problem is with Debby not moving, it's not allowing the tide to go out," said Port Richey City Manager Tom O'Neill.

The county also expects to get another 3 to 6 inches of rain this week, said Annette Doying, director of emergency management for Pasco County.

"We are still in it for a while," she said.

And with the area so saturated, even a few inches of rain could exacerbate the flooding problem, New Port Richey City Manager John Schneiger said.

"Our public works is showing we received 15 inches of rain," said Schneiger. "We're still very concerned there will be more flooding, and we think there is a good chance it may get worse. We're anticipating the problem will continue through the weekend."

Isolated tornadoes are possible this week, Doying said. Authorities suspect tornadoes caused damage on Sunday to areas in Pasco, including blowing the roof off the post office in Elfers, battering Centennial Library in Holiday and damaging several homes in the Tanglewood Terrace subdivision in New Port Richey.

By Sunday night, U.S. 19 became a terrifying river. Many low-lying areas in west Pasco have been flooded for days. On Monday, residents of Thousand Oaks in Trinity took sledgehammers to the wall surrounding their community, punching holes in the concrete to relieve the waist-high water trapped inside. There were reports of citizens outside the evacuation zone calling rescuers to be helped to safety, including Suncoast Gateway Mobile Village in Port Richey on Monday and Club Wildwood in Hudson on Tuesday.

Residents needing to be evacuated have been urged to call 911. Those with questions may call the county's resident information line at (727) 847-8959. At 2 p.m. Tuesday, the county reported it had been getting 200 calls every half hour, mostly from people who already called 911 and were stranded inside their homes, waiting to be rescued.

The city of New Port Richey also reported a voluntary evacuation order and shut off the power at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Harborview Mobile Home Park on Louisiana Avenue and Congress Street. Buses were available at Gulf Middle School to transport those residents to area shelters.

Although much of the focus of Debby has been in west Pasco, there have been reports of flooding in east Pasco, with a portion of Bellamy Brothers Boulevard closed Tuesday. Sections of many large, heavily trafficked roads in western Pasco remained closed Tuesday: State Road 54, Ridge Road, Trouble Creek Road, Mitchell Ranch Road.

Two sinkholes were reported Tuesday, one on Majestic Boulevard at the entrance to Beacon Woods in Bayonet Point, and another on Grand Boulevard in New Port Richey.

No injuries from the storm have been reported, Keaton said.

Times correspondent Robert Napper contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6229.

Pasco emergency workers evacuate thousands in Debby's wake 06/26/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 26, 2012 9:18pm]

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