Tampa Bay rivers reach dangerously high levels as Debby moves north

Rising waters trap some Tampa Bay area residents in flooded homes and leave still others wondering what to do.


Beneath the shade of mossy oaks on Elfers Parkway, Trena and Marty Hieftje live in a rust-colored mobile home near a bend on the Anclote River. It's something between a single-wide and a double. A 1954 license plate is still screwed into the siding.

On Sunday night, as she made tacos in the kitchen, Trena glanced out her back window and saw something she shouldn't have seen.


Tropical Storm Debby had overwhelmed the river. Normally 75 feet from the Hieftjes' back door, the water engulfed their home Tuesday morning — rising higher than the top of their dining room table.

The family has lived on the river for 15 years.

"After today," Marty said, "we're done."

Dozens of homes on the Anclote were swamped. Though few other inland communities in Tampa Bay suffered such severe trauma, rivers throughout the area swelled to their bursting points Tuesday. The National Weather Service issued flood warnings for at least 16 spots on nine rivers.

Forecasters believe inland waterways will cause problems for days. This is what they predicted: The Anclote's waters will remain dangerously high through Friday; Cypress Creek was likely to flood Worthington Gardens Tuesday night and stay that way for several days; the Little Manatee River will bring moderate flooding to Wimauma through late this week; the Alafia River will creep into Lithia, but drop within the next two days.

As the rivers grew, Debby stumbled onto land at 5 p.m. near Steinhatchee, about 35 miles north of Cedar Key, where it was downgraded to a tropical depression. Forecasters expect it to increase its speed and scoot across Florida by late today.

The threat of severe weather in the Tampa Bay area will decrease, though there is still a 70 percent chance of rain today and 50 percent Thursday. Rain chances plunge to 20 percent Friday and over the weekend, according to Bay News 9.

Debby's retreat will end several days of soggy and sometimes serious weather. The storm dumped up to 15 inches of rain on some areas and helped Tampa International Airport break a record for June rainfall.

In addition, the National Weather Service on Tuesday confirmed that seven tornadoes, one causing a death in Highlands County, touched down across Florida. The tornadoes, ranging from 75 to 120 mph, spiraled through Citrus, Hardee, Highlands, Polk and Pinellas counties Sunday night.

On Pass-a-Grille, Debby left a huge mark in two ways: On Sunday night, a tornado popped windows, tore off roofs and shredded trees; on Monday night, the Gulf of Mexico devoured the beach up to the sand dunes.

In saturated Pasco County, sinkholes the size of minivans swallowed up yards and roadsides. Some also appeared in Brooksville.

But with Debby's storm surge, high winds and torrential downpours subsiding as Tuesday progressed, many area residents' fears centered on the rivers.

Some were realized. Some weren't.

On the bank of the Withlacoochee River in the southeast corner of Hernando, 23-year-old Krystal Stemen and her three children prepared early Tuesday to evacuate for a flood that experts later determined would never come.

In Worthington Gardens, where Cypress Creek had risen about 6 feet in two days, no one seemed concerned early Tuesday about the predicted flooding that night.

Some even went fishing.

Bessie Barrett, 68, of Wimauma, said she didn't know what she would do with her horse, a 5-year-old mare named Cera, if the rising Little Manatee River forced her to evacuate. She doesn't own a horse trailer.

"I'm not worried," said Barrett, her back yard under water but home still dry. "I'm just concerned. I just have to prepare for it."

In Lithia, the Alafia River invaded the roadways. Residents had not been evacuated, but many moved their cars to a safer spot Monday night.

Mary Lyons, who has lived with her family on River Drive for 14 years, said she hasn't seen flooding this severe since 2004, when four hurricanes whipped across Florida. Back then, officials asked her neighbors to evacuate. Some did. She and her family stayed put. They planned to do the same for Debby.

If necessary, Lyons decided, she would park her car on higher ground, then return home.

"Somebody has to stay with the property," Lyons said Tuesday afternoon. "I'm not worried. We have a canoe."

Back in New Port Richey, near the Anclote, the rising water swept Jim Rigsby's 10-foot john boat from his yard. As the river climbed within 6 inches of his home, Rigsby called in emergency workers to help evacuate his dogs in a boat. By Tuesday afternoon, Rufus, Inky, Sasha, Keisha, Bear, Freckles and Roscoe were safe.

Fluffy was missing.

On Elfers Parkway, with their mobile home halfway submerged, the Hieftjes didn't know what to do.

Trena is a waiter, and her husband is unemployed. Their home was not insured.

They saved their two teen daughters, four adult dogs and six 11-day-old puppies, but the losses were devastating.

The river destroyed their girls' beds, clothes and video games. It took a couch and clothes and, worst of all, a family photo album.

Times staff writers Laura C. Morel, Danny Valentine, Keeley Sheehan and Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432.