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The water washes away a way of life in Ozello

Ozello is a splatter of paint on a map of Citrus County, a random configuration of land masses barely emerged from the sea.

The water defines the land and the people who live here.

They have come here because of it. They thrill at the sight of it. And now, three months after a frightening wall of water washed ashore, it is also causing some people to leave.

The March flood drowned thousands of homes on Florida's west coast. In the days since, its victims have been confronted with hundreds of decisions.

Some have been small: Do I rip out this carpet myself or hire someone to do it?

But other matters to be decided have gone to the core of what the people here need and want out of life: Should I stay or should I go?

The residents have made their choices quietly. To an outsider, the streets might seem little changed from the months and years before the storm.

But a closer look at one tiny street in Ozello shows that in the flooded areas, nothing ever will be quite the same again.

"With a beauty all its own'

W Shorecliff Court is a dusty little road barely wider than a car. On a summer day, a hot wind whooshes through the cypress and the plentiful oak trees that drip with moss in the familiar proclamation that this is the South.

Doves coo, crickets chirp and occasionally a car is heard traveling along curvy Ozello Trail, a road that links one end of the community of islands to the other so effectively that a sign or two is all that is needed to tell of upcoming social events.

A canal is cut through the back yards on either side of Shorecliff Court, giving most of the residents an easy route out to Black Creek at the end of the street and the Gulf of Mexico beyond.

The homes here are predominantly modest _ mobile or conventional _ and owned by people with working class backgrounds who live in them year-round, on weekends or during occasional vacations.

Nelda Baxley, a retired bookkeeper, likes to go next door to her brother's house at the end of the road, which has water on three sides. From its second floor, she can see all around.

"Have you ever seen the moon come up over the water? It comes up bright orange. It's just gorgeous," she said.

"The dolphins come up on his front yard. You can see and hear the fish jumping. . . . This is typical Florida. Beaches are nice, but this is typical Florida with a beauty all its own."

For some, the Ozello appeal is so strong that nothing _ not even destruction of their personal items, significant damage to their homes, and a day of terror at the rising water _ will drive them out.

But for at least five of the 20 or so households along Shorecliff, the storm proved too much.

Neighbors tell of a woman and her two children who never came back after the flood. "Her father gave the mobile home away to anyone who would take it," a neighbor said. No one seemed to know where she had gone.

Another family rented a concrete block home that got plenty of water. They traded in Ozello for high and dry Beverly Hills.

Betty Whittle also has given up her life in Ozello, where she had lived for 13 years. She has done so reluctantly.

"I've always loved the water and been around the water," she said. "I could fish, shrimp and do everything right there in my back yard."

But 39.5 inches of water came into her mobile home, and the 67-year-old retired receptionist says she cannot afford to rebuild it. And if she were to try to replace it with a new mobile home, the law would require her to raise it 13 feet in the air to avoid another flood.

"Personally, I'd rather take a chance on water, not wind at 13 feet," she said. She also does not like the idea of the steps she would have to climb. She had a few steps before, "but it got so that some days, I couldn't go up four steps, so I had me a ramp built."

Rather than going up, she decided to go out searching for somewhere else to live. She found a place in Homosassa, 1 mile south of Ozello Trail, near U.S. 19.

"It takes me 15 minutes to get home to Ozello to see my friends," she said.

"I didn't think at my age I'd have to start all over again."

A shift in demographics

Across the street from her nearly empty Shorecliff home are several people who are not starting all over again.

Two stately brick homes are built high in the air, dwarfing their neighbors. In a nearby mobile home, Glen Holt also had to meet the 13-foot flood elevation requirement when he moved in about nine years ago. He said it was annoying to have to bring in 60 truckloads of dirt to raise it up, but "now I'm thanking them."

The living quarters in the air are a sign of Citrus County's future.

"Citrus was for a while a place where people of modest income could create a camp as a weekend retreat and not have to worry about the niceties of building codes," said county Property Appraiser Ron Schultz.

Ozello has many such places: tiny streets with trailers, single-wide mobiles and fishing cabins set alongside newer homes.

The passage of time will change that. The old homes will be replaced by higher-priced housing because of new building requirements and because land values have risen.

Some of the weekend retreats seem not to have been touched since the storm, as if the owners are unsure of just what to do with them.

Some people are hoping to sell the damaged mobile homes as-is. "We've got some good deals on you-fix-it trailers," said Ozello Realtor Wanda Wells.

The flood "accelerates the process of redevelopment," Schultz said. "You're going to see a change in the nature of communities. . . . The people who come in will be of a different economic stratum."

On Shorecliff, there is a range of housing values, but there is no class division. The people who own the nice new homes are related to other people who live along the street.

The neighbors were grateful for the raised homes, because when the water rose, they swam over and escaped the flood.

"I'm out of here'

Mrs. Baxley and her 81-year-old husband, Alfred, generally split their time between Lakeland and Ozello, but since the flood, they have spent virtually all of their time here in a day-in, day-out effort to rid their house of its effects.

Instead of making crafts, she is scrubbing. Instead of indulging in his hobby of restoring antique furniture, the retired sheet metal worker is restoring his house.

"Your windows, you don't wash them once, you wash them three times before they're clean," she said. "Deep mud covered everything."

Last weekend, her husband got on the roof to repair the television antenna. "I didn't think I could do it," he said.

They would have hired people to do their work for them, but this is their second home and they have no flood insurance. "If we had hired someone, it would have been thousands of dollars," he said.

Neither minds hard work but, he said: "I like to do the things I like to do. Furniture restoration is my love."

The flood will not scare them away.

"It was 105 years since the last time," Mrs. Baxley said. "If it's another 105 years, someone else can worry about it."