Thursday, January 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Residents along Withlacoochee hold on to hope as river recedes

RIDGE MANOR

In the days since Hurricane Irma swept across Hernando County, Barbara Schmidt has developed a new ritual. She drives every day to the entrance to her neighborhood on Cyril Drive, off State Road 50, to see if the floodwaters have gone down enough that she can get to her house.

On Monday, they hadn't. She couldn't even get far enough down the road to see her house, much less get inside to assess the damage done by the swollen Withlacoochee River, which her home backs up to.

Schmidt, 61, and most of her neighbors whose homes sit along the winding river have been out of their homes since county officials issued voluntary evacuation orders as waters began to rise following the storm.

After reaching its fifth-highest crest ever — 17.67 feet at the Trilby gauge — the river began to recede back into its banks late last week, allowing some residents to return to their homes, and others, like Schmidt, to regain hope they'll be able to soon.

At midweek, the river was at 14 feet, just below what is considered moderate flood stage. Waters are expected to steadily fall through Sunday, when the level will drop below flood stage, which is 12 feet.

"I can't know what to do until I can get there and see the damage," Schmidt said. "I feel like I'm just numb. ... It's a mess for everyone back here."

Some residents who did not evacuate, or who returned home after the hurricane despite flooding, parked their vehicles at the front of neighborhoods, where floodwaters did not reach, and used jon boats to get back and forth to their homes.

"Every freakin' day we paddle out and paddle back in, and I'm 70 years old," said Cyril Drive resident Ralph Cocchi, sitting in a canoe with his daughter, Tiffany Cocchi, 36, who is his neighbor. "I look at Puerto Rico and think I am way better off compared to them. ... But I can't help but recognize my own situation."

•••

While most residents on Cyril have electricity now, many others along the river do not. The county has been working in partnership with the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative to decide where it is appropriate to reconnect power based on the flood's impacts, said Jim Friedrichs, the county's building official.

"We're slowly but surely drafting a list and sending it out to (the cooperative) as we get addresses,'' he said. "It's a joint decision'' where to restore power.

Friedrichs said he has mobilized teams to begin assessing property damage as waters go down, but "it's just proving to be very problematic to perform damage assessments on the river." He was not sure when assessments would be completed, but county officials have said dozens of homes along the river may have to be condemned due to the damage sustained in the flood.

As many residents grapple with living without electricity and running water or struggle to afford everyday necessities atop relocation costs, Eastside Elementary School has come to their aid.

The school enrolls about 60 students whose families are victims of the flood, some of whom assistant principal Mike Lastra said came to school with bug bites, as floodwaters have brought increased populations of mosquitoes near their homes.

"This is happening in our own back yard," Lastra said. "Many of our families have lost everything, and now they are coming here to get everything back."

Last week, the school opened up a free store stocked with donations such as clothes and food. The week before, officials took students on a bus ride to flooded areas, and they passed out supplies to residents.

Cyril Drive resident Keyon Thompson, 38, who has four children enrolled at the school, called the store "a blessing." School office clerk Kathy Deese, who is responsible for checking families into the store, said about 50 families have visited so far.

•••

Schmidt said regardless of what she finds when she is finally able to make the drive down Cyril and return home, where she has lived since 1985 after inheriting the house from her parents, she plans to move elsewhere. She said she and her husband, who is terminally ill, have seen waters rise around their home too many times.

"We can't come back here. ... I can't deal with this again," she said, standing near the start of the flood waters on her street. "I am just very emotionally and physically exhausted."

Staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.

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