Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Tropical Storm Debby floods Imperial Estates mobile home park; waters yet to recede

BROOKSVILLE — Evelyn Kiefer went to bed last Sunday night in what she now calls a state of denial.

Kiefer and her husband, Klaus, watched the water around their mobile home on Rappelo Road rise steadily as Tropical Storm Debby dumped rain on Imperial Estates, a 55-and-older mobile home community on Powell Road. The couple went to sleep figuring the water couldn't possibly get any higher.

At about 3 a.m., Kiefer woke up and swung her legs off the bed. Her feet landed in about 2 inches of water.

"I said, 'This can't be happening,' " Kiefer, a 71-year-old retired teacher, recalled Friday. "But it was."

With the help of a neighbor, the couple scrambled to remove as many belongings as they could. The water would eventually climb to their knees. Their furniture started to float.

"You hear about people getting flooded out," Klaus said, "but you never expect it to happen to you."

It has been a long, wet seven days for the Kiefers and thousands of Hernando County residents affected by Debby.

The lumbering weather system dumped more than 15 inches of rain on parts of the county. More than 130 homes had flood damage. For some, that meant wet belongings in the garage. For others, the waters brought complete devastation.

Some residents, including at least two in Brookridge, had to be rescued by neighbors or sheriff's deputies as water rose around their homes. Others fled submerged cars.

Floodwaters kept some roads closed for days. Many residents had to use boats, kayaks, rafts and canoes to reach their homes after water swamped roads leading into their neighborhoods.

Dozens of sinkholes opened up throughout Hernando, including one that could keep a section of Mariner Boulevard closed for weeks. In Trillium, a subdivision on County Line Road near the Suncoast Parkway, sinkholes opened up within feet of homes, forcing at least one family to leave.

By the time the skies finally began to clear and officials were able to start assessing the damage, it was clear the Kiefers' corner of Imperial Estates was one of the hardest hit places in the county.

About a dozen of the neighborhood's 126 homes had flood damage inside. At several others, water swamped porches and came within inches of seeping inside. Dozens more residents were stranded behind flooded roads.

The ordeal has tested a close-knit community accustomed to helping its own.

• • •

The Kiefers found their mobile home in Imperial Estates about 12 years ago. Built in the mid 1980s, the home was at first a permanent one, then a place for the couple to winter before returning to Virginia.

Nestled among towering pine trees and oaks, the park opened in 1972. But even the oldest homes are still kept tidy. The place is quiet except for the dull white noise of traffic on nearby U.S. 41.

Women get together for luncheons. The men call themselves the "Romeos," for Retired Old Men who Eat Out. Residents gather at the Over the Hill Club, a former log cabin converted into a recreation center, to play cards, dance and swap stories during potluck dinners. They organize trips to local theaters and out-of-state casinos. Hanging on a wall of the recreation center are photos of smiling nonagenarians who have recently celebrated birthdays.

"It's very friendly, very peaceful, and people are willing to help you," said Klaus Keifer, a 73-year-old retired cabinetmaker.

The park is nearly full come the peak of snowbird season. By the dead of summer, as few as a quarter of the residents remain. Some of the permanent residents keep an eye on their part-time neighbors' homes.

By the time Debby hit, a large majority of the seasonal residents had already headed north for the summer. Several have yet to see firsthand the damage.

Never has the park flooded as it did last week, said Woody Wirtz, whose family has owned the park since 1976.

Wirtz and his parents, Ed and Ruth, are convinced that the severity of the flooding can be blamed on the work several years ago to widen U.S. 41. The family said they warned Florida Department of Transportation officials that the widening, completed in the early 1990s, would prevent water from flowing away from the neighborhood during extraordinary rain events.

Wirtz has called FDOT, the county, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, even a state senator, looking for help in the form of a pump to start pulling water out of the neighborhood.

Without that help, Wirtz worries that Imperial Estates could stay flooded all summer. The water is still too high to repair the neighborhood's sewage lift station. So far, toilets in the neighborhood are still flushing.

And so far, no pump.

"It's frustrating," Wirtz said. "I can understand how upset the people were in New Orleans."

On Thursday, a DOT official arrived to survey the site. Department spokeswoman Kris Carson told the Tampa Bay Times Friday that drainage experts were trying to determine if some berm structures along U.S. 41 could be removed to let the water flow. That could cause flooding somewhere else, though.

"We're trying to make sure we don't make the situation worse," Carson said.

Carson said the DOT does not have pumps, but was trying to work with the county to find one. As of Friday, county officials had no intention of installing one at the park, which is private property, said county spokeswoman Brenda Frazier.

Asked about the possibility of demolishing homes that can't be saved, Woody Wirtz shook his head.

"We haven't got that far."

• • •

As the sun rose on Imperial Estates last Monday, Beverly Levesque waded through her darkened living room, wielding a flashlight.

Levesque, a 66-year-old part-time home health attendant, moved into the gray singlewide mobile home at the dead end of Kim Drive about 13 years ago.

"I had the best spot," she said.

She kept to herself, and wasn't a regular at the Over the Hill Club. On Monday morning, she was trying to find belongings before fleeing the house when a neighbor named Rodney Tinkey saw her flashlight in the window.

Tinkey walked through waist-deep water to help Levesque back to dry land. The two had exchanged hellos previously but hadn't met before the moment he rescued her.

On Friday, Levesque sat in a chair in Tinkey's driveway, dragging on a cigarette after making a boat trip to her house to gather more belongings.

"It's like if you dropped everything you owned into the middle of a swamp," she said.

She tried to open a drawer of her roll-top desk, and it disintegrated in her hands. Droplets of moisture had begun to form behind glass of framed photos hanging on the wall. She grabbed a gift bag containing a framed photo of her granddaughter the day she got her driver's license. The bag was still dry, and Levesque planned to give her granddaughter the gift on Saturday, her birthday.

No company would insure the home, which was built in 1974, Levesque said. For now, she is splitting time with her ex-daughter-in law in Spring Hill and a friend in Citrus County.

"I would love to have another trailer right in that spot," she said, "but it's not going to happen."

Jeffrey McClung is clinging to hope that the mobile home he shared with his girlfriend can be salvaged, but it doesn't look good. The place already smells horrible, he said. Earlier last week, his girlfriend went inside and discovered that a dresser had fallen through the bedroom floor.

McClung, 40 years old and on disability, paid $6,500 cash for the home and moved from West Virginia in October. He had just installed hardwood flooring.

For now, the couple are staying at his father's place, also in the park. They have no insurance. The American Red Cross arrived earlier in the week and brought some sandwiches. McClung said he was surprised there wasn't more help.

"Just a little something to put in the cupboard," he said.

Red Cross volunteers were back in the neighborhood Friday morning to assess needs in the park.

"This is worse than most of what I've seen," said volunteer Judy Leavitt.

For now, the Kiefers are staying in a neighbor's house in the park. They don't have insurance, either, and said they probably would just have to cut their losses. They don't plan to buy another place in Florida, but might rent one for a few months of the year.

"I kind of like Cocoa Beach," Evelyn said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]

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