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Lessons of no-name storm

Ten years ago today, under cover of darkness, Mother Nature drove a wall of water into the Citrus County coastline and showed once more the folly of allowing humans unbridled access to waterfront development.

While the county slept that night, a storm surge bloated the rivers coursing through western Citrus, raising the levels more than 8 feet in a matter of hours. Residents who went to sleep with the rivers rolling past their docks awoke to find the water in their bedrooms, lapping at their toes.

This natural disaster came in so quietly and unexpectedly that the forecasters never even had the chance to pin a label on it. Unlike the infamous Andrew or Hugo, this one will forever carry the moniker of the no-name storm.

It was devastating, nonetheless. Although the deluge claimed no lives directly, it endangered thousands of people, flooded hundreds of homes and businesses and left all roads west of U.S. 19 impassable.

The storm also brought out the hero in many people, civilians and public safety employees alike, who repeatedly risked their own lives to retrieve those trapped in the floodwaters. Airboats and canoes crisscrossed neighborhoods, floating several feet above flooded roads. Using the trees as guides for where the asphalt ended and the ditches began, public works trucks and school buses managed to navigate the winding roads to pick up stranded survivors.

The storm also served as a wakeup call to county emergency officials and residents by pointing out the deficiencies in their disaster and recovery plans, weaknesses that in large measure have been addressed. A siren alarm system has been installed to warn coastal residents. Communications have improved among the various emergency service agencies. At least now, rescuers have a decent chance of being able to talk to one another during a crisis.

Some lessons, however, have not been learned, especially when it comes to those in authority in Citrus County fulfilling their responsibility to safeguard the public.

State and federal authorities recognize that population density in flood-prone areas west of U.S. 19 must be low in order to save lives in the event of catastrophic storms. Changes have been required of those who chose to rebuild their homes after the storm, with many forced to erect their homes on man-made mounds and stilts to be above potential floodwaters.

Yet, as the ongoing Halls River Retreat controversy has shown, several Citrus commissioners are comfortable allowing the public to put itself into danger. They see no problem in allowing a time share condominium complex, with the expected hundreds of users it would attract, to be situated on a site where the only escape route is a two-lane bridge that would be quickly overburdened during an evacuation.

Another development proposal now being contemplated, this one for an 84-unit assisted living facility on a tract west of U.S. 19, raises similar concerns. If this project is allowed to be built and another no-name storm were to arrive, dozens of elderly residents and those who would have to rescue them would be in peril.

Consider also that the threat is not limited to such major events as the no-name storm of 1993. These low-lying areas are flooded by even the most mundane storms, and those communities have seen their share of tornadoes, gales and the tail ends of hurricanes brushing our coast on their way to Cedar Key and the Big Bend area of the Panhandle.

Longtime residents tell tales of the wild storms they have survived through pluck and good luck. Why should the responsible county officials seek to tempt fate by twisting the rules to allow even more people to build homes in these vulnerable zones?

Those who were living in Citrus County in 1993 vividly recall the destruction that the no-name storm brought to our shoreline and how fortunate the county was then to avoid loss of life. No reasonable person, however, expects that luck to hold out indefinitely.

By ignoring the public safety aspect of their development decisions, the majority of the commissioners, fixated only on business interests and building rights, are putting more people into harm's way.

The day will certainly come when another so-called Storm of the Century arrives to crush the coastline. If the current county leadership fails to heed the lessons from 1993, rescuers and good Samaritans should make sure their boats and emergency vehicles have plenty of gas in them. There will be a lot more people to be plucked from the roofs and decks of flooded homes.