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System to watch for floods

Sindy Hope spent her first day of 2003 nervously watching water from the overflowing Alafia River rise toward the deck of her second-story home.

By the time she canoed away from her house on Coconut Grove Place, her first-floor garage was full of water that destroyed her water softener, lawn mower, power tools, bicycles, fishing equipment and a freezer.

She says she might have been able to save many of those items had she had advance notice of the severity and swiftness of the rising water.

"When we went to bed the night before there was no water out there, and when we woke up it was 5 feet deep," she said.

As a result of the unexpected severe flooding caused by the heavy rains on New Year's Eve, officials are taking action.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District on Tuesday installed a $6,500 river height monitoring device downstream from the Medard Reservoir; and on March 5 the County Commission committed up to $25,000 for the installation of a river height gauge at Bullfrog Creek and an upgrade of the monitoring system on the Alafia River. The Alafia River and Bull Frog Creek improvements will be made as soon as possible, said Larry Gispert, manager of Hillsborough County Emergency Management.

The county will also institute new ways of notifying residents when flooding is likely to occur.

As much as 7 inches of rain fell in parts of Hillsborough County last New Year's Eve. The National Weather Service had predicted only 1 to 2 inches. The Alafia River crested at about 19 feet _ 6 feet above flood level.

The New Year's rainfall provided new data to the National Weather Service in Ruskin that will contribute to better forecasts in the future, say county officials.

The county also plans to step up its efforts to notify residents of impending floods.

In the coming days, letters will be mailed to residents in flood zones telling them where to find accurate weather information.

The letter urges residents to purchase a weather radio, which costs from from $30 to $60, and monitor weather service Web sites.

The letter also invites residents to participate in the county Emergency Operation Center's newly available call-down phone system. The computerized system provides verbal warning messages to a pre-programmed phone number group. Those who wish to receive this kind of warning would provide their telephone number to the EOC.

The EOC bought the phone system in 1997 to alert businesses in the Port of Tampa of hazardous spills, Gispert says.

While brainstorming ways to warn residents of floods, emergency management staff came up with the idea of expanding the scope of the system.

No system, however, can protect people from Mother Nature's whims, Gispert said.

Weather prediction, he noted, is "an inexact science."

Sometimes they blow the forecast, he said. They might underestimate water levels or encourage people to leave their homes only to have the water fall far short of predictions.

"They have to understand where they live," Gispert said. "If you live along the river there's a possibility it will come out of the banks."

_ Janet Zink can be reached at 661-2441 or jzinksptimes.com.

For information

For current flood information, visit the National Weather Service Web site at www.srh.noaa.gov/tbw. To get on the EOC notification list, call 272-6900.

Dave Dunnett, a data collection field technician with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, installs a monitoring station on a creek that runs from the dam at Pleasant Grove Reservoir. The station is one of several being installed around the county to help alert residents of rising flood waters.

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