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Rocky Creek dam adds to wet woes

Betty Ham found out you don't have to live on the coast during a hurricane to end up knee-deep in floodwater. All you have to do is live on a creek and have a dam malfunction.

"The water kept rising and rising and the next thing I knew there was no stopping it," said Ham, who has lived in her home across from Rocky Creek for 37 years. "I used every beach towel and washcloth I own to sop it up. I didn't want to ruin everything."

Ham, 65 and retired, wasn't the only one flooded on River Road when Frances blew through Tampa. So were about a dozen of her neighbors.

"I got four to five inches throughout the house," said Tom Laura, who has insurance on his home but not on its contents.

"Luckily I don't have a lot," he said.

Victims say the flood didn't have to happen. They blame the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, for failing to open the dam before the creek rose.

"I'm so angry about this," said Helen Martens, whose stilt home overlooks Rocky Creek. "Swiftmud had days in advance to get the dam opened up."

Swiftmud is responsible for maintaining the dam, which keeps salt water out of Rocky Creek. The agency has a number of other salt water intrusion barriers in the county, said Michael Molligan, Swiftmud spokesman.

On this particular day, however, a number of factors converged to make a bad situation worse, Molligan said.

The dam "should have opened but didn't because of a power failure," Molligan said. "We're looking at options to reduce the risk" in the future.

The dam, which is automated, is set to rise and lower based on water levels. But that depends on electrical power and sensors working properly.

Residents said they called to tell Swiftmud officials that the creek was flooding. They say the water receded within an hour once the dam was opened.

"It certainly came up fast on us," Molligan said, explaining that when workers at the Brooksville office checked the dam's sensors on Monday there was no indication of a problem. But then, "a few hours later," the water level was rising, he said.

Problems were further compounded by the violent weather and the need for workers to watch for their own safety.

"If it had been a regular storm we wouldn't have been scattered to the three winds and we would have been able to get out there faster," Molligan said. "It took a while. I regret it occurred."

Martens, who has insurance, said many of her neighbors are retired and have inadequate or no insurance on their property.

"There are some people in the neighborhood hurting," said Martens, wondering if Swiftmud will take financial responsibility for the flood.

Molligan said he assumed there was a process to follow for people wishing to file a claim. However, he added that "a hurricane was hitting and water levels were up all over the place."

Jackie Ripley can be reached at (813) 269-5308 or ripleysptimes.com.

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