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No-name storm left its mark

Of all things to do on a Friday evening, 16-year-old Joshua Courter stood in the kitchen peeling potatoes.

As he worked over the garbage can, a dizzy feeling came over him, something like the flu. "I was really dazed and just fell asleep on the couch."

Courter thought he was dreaming, hours later, when he felt splashing on his hand that hung over the sofa. He sat up, trying to focus.

The water's reflection danced off the television. Eight inches covered the floor; on the other side of the sliding glass door, water had risen to nearly 2 feet.

"It was completely surreal," Courter recalled.

That was how it seemed in the early hours of March 13, 1993 _ the day the no-name storm rendered Citrus County a federal disaster area.

It came with little warning and struck with awesome force, producing hurricane-force winds and tidal surges between 8 and 12 feet.

When it was over, as the flood waters receded, all that remained was the cold reality of waterlogged homes, mangled boats and useless cars.

Carpets, furniture and appliances were hauled out to front lawns, waiting to he taken to the landfill.

There were confusion, anger, sadness and unscrupulous contractors looking to make a quick buck. People were displaced from their homes for weeks, even months.

There also were flashes of heroism _ like the man who carried a neighbor who used a wheelchair to safety. And there were bonds forged between neighbors and lessons that led to improvements in the county's emergency systems.

Above all, the storm forever changed public perception of the risks involved in living so close to the water.

On the 10-year anniversary, there are few physical signs of the disaster. The more than 3,100 Citrus homes that were damaged have been remodeled, rebuilt or demolished. Cars and boats have been replaced.

But the memories will never fade, people who experienced the storm say. Today, some will look over photographs or watch home videos or simply reflect on the ordeal.

"It was like a nightmare that wouldn't quit," said Mary Capiel, whose Riverhaven home sustained $75,000 in damage.

Capiel, who has since moved to Ocala, vividly remembers driving home from Tampa that day and hearing radio reports of massive flooding.

The road leading to her house had become a river with floating propane tanks, garbage cans and docks. She later found her elderly neighbors on their kitchen counter, cold and frightened.

Two men fishing off Crystal River drowned in the storm. Some residents still wonder if stress from the storm hastened the deaths of elderly neighbors.

How it all started

The no-name storm began early Friday morning, March 12, off the coast of Texas. There was cold air to the north, tropical air to the south and a strong jet stream above, said Charlie Paxton, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

A bulletin sent shortly before 4 p.m. predicted strong winds, thunderstorms and high tides a few feet above normal for Citrus and other west coast areas.

Within 12 hours, the storm was nearly across the Gulf of Mexico. By 11 p.m. one could see a wall of lightning in the western sky and the winds had picked up in Citrus County.

Before midnight, a twister hit a mobile home park near the Crystal River Archaeological State Park, then skipped over the river and struck Woods n' Waters subdivision and River Cove Landings, both on Fort Island Trail.

Emergency crews from across the county responded to calls of downed power lines and fallen trees. Phones stopped working. Suddenly the storm seemed a lot more threatening that predicted.

At 5:42 a.m., the National Weather Service issued more flood warnings, and a forecaster from Ruskin gave this report:

"What we were thinking was that were were going to be able to squeak by this high tide this morning _ the afternoon would be the problem. Obviously we underestimated the tidal rise based on the storm itself. And it ain't over yet _ that's the bad news."

By then, water was already flowing into neighborhoods. With growing velocity, it continued to invade streets, then yards, then homes.

"It just kept pouring in," recalled John Lettow, a Crystal River public works employee and volunteer firefighter.

At 8 a.m., the water in Crystal River, Ozello and Homosassa was already knee-deep in the streets and some homes. After a 10:30 emergency meeting in Lecanto, the county issued an evacuation notice _ some five hours after Hernando County did the same.

School buses were used to evacuate residents, but some motors stalled in the high water. Residents took matters into their own hands, calling friends with airboats and motor boats to rescue them.

Lettow used a fire truck to rescue a dozen people who lived along Kings Bay, but the truck quit running at Cutler Spur and Kings Bay Drive.

As homes were being flooded, so were the city of Crystal River's offices. Hundreds of documents were ruined and the entire fleet of fire trucks was rendered useless by the saltwater. Businesses along Citrus Avenue and U.S. 19 were also flooded.

Lessons learned

The storm exposed holes in the county's ability to deal with an emergency. Communication was spotty in part because various agencies used different radio frequencies.

The county was also criticized for not acting sooner to evacuate residents. Officials now say they are better prepared, and more aware of the dangers.

The radio system has since been upgraded, and the county also added alert sirens in Homosassa and Chassahowitzka that are similar to those around Crystal River that are used in the event of a nuclear emergency.

After the storm, the National Weather Service installed a weather buoy in the gulf that provides accurate readings of wind speed, barometric pressure and water temperature and level. There were also radar improvements, and the county hired an emergency planner.

"Did we do everything right? Probably not," said Rusty Harry, the county's emergency management coordinator. "But we did everything we could possibly do."

As the cleanup began, county officials took on the difficult task of assessing the damage. The review was governed by the "50 percent rule," which communities adopted in order to take advantage of the taxpayer-subsidized National Flood Insurance Program.

Under the rule, a structure that sustains damage equal to or in excess of half its value must be rebuilt to strict guidelines.

Where you stood could mean the difference in thousands of dollars. Some people got by with a thorough scrubbing of their home or replacing carpet and drywall. Others were forced to rebuild their homes on stilts.

Homeowners grew frustrated because they could not begin repairs until after the inspection. Some people below the 50 percent mark urged inspectors to raise the level so they could collect insurance, Harry said.

The county received more than $1-million in federal disaster relief to repair washed-out roads and bridges, and remove storm debris. Residents and business owners received about $20-million in grants or low-interest loans.

The accidental hero

Kevin Duignan was 23 years old when the storm hit. He said he'll never forget that day. His boss at Kentucky Fried Chicken called him about 9 a.m. to say her daughters were stranded in a low-income housing complex near his duplex off Fort Island Trail. She could not reach them because the roads were blocked.

As Duignan retrieved the girls, the water was starting to fill the parking lot. He used a little-known trail through the woods to bring the girls to their mother. But one of them forgot her insulin.

When he returned to the complex, the water was waist-deep. As he waded through the parking lot, Duignan heard banging coming from of the apartments. From a window, Duignan saw an old man in a wheelchair. He broke a window and pulled the man out, carrying him on his back to his apartment, which was dry.

Duignan and a neighbor started going door to door and eventually they had brought 50 people to their apartments. The newspapers called him a hero.

"I don't consider what I did being a hero," said Duignan, who now lives in Delray Beach. "I just had a chance to help people, and I did. I didn't think about it at time; I just reacted."

Diving for food

As Josh Courter realized he was not dreaming _ the house really was filling with water _ he ran upstairs to wake his mother, Gay.

They furiously began gathering everything they could: the family videotapes in the bottom drawer of a cabinet, an expensive camera and accessories.

But the water kept pouring in, first 1 foot then 2, then 3. Cabinets began floating, then overturned. Josh's surfboard was floating in his bedroom. His cat, Domino, sat on his waterbed, which also was afloat.

As the water reached chest level, Josh and his mother realized they should gather some food. They emptied a wooden bowl filled with oranges and grapefruits and filled it with items from the refrigerator.

The water had reached 4 feet by 11 a.m. Josh dived in search of canned goods from the pantry. He found some, but the labels were falling off.

"As it was happening, Mom and I were having the best time," Josh said. "It was so unbelievable, and there was nothing you could do about it. There was no fear, no anger, just complete and utter hysterics."

Meanwhile, Josh's father, Phil, was flying his private plane back from Orlando.

He had picked up Josh's brother, Blake, who was on spring break from Princeton. The two were unaware of what lay ahead because they could not get through on the telephone.

"It was just a complete surprise and shock," Phil Courter said, recalling the scene as they flew over U.S. 19.

"It was a huge vast lake down there. My first thought was, Boy oh boy, our house is under water."

_ Alex Leary can be reached at 564-3623 or learysptimes.com.

The owners of this home in the Dixie Shores neighborhood of Crystal River will surely never forget how their living room looked after the storm. In that area, waves of 9 feet were reported, one woman told of swimming with a suitcase to a neighbor's house, and a teenager saved three lives.

Joshua, Gay and Phil Courter are just finishing the rebuilding of their home on Kings Bay a decade after floods ruined the lower level. They used a FEMA grant and their own money to gut the bottom level and expand the second floor, hoping to never encounter another "completely surreal" scene.

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