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Yesterday's lessons redirect floodwater

Just east of U.S. 41, the usually dry Masaryktown Canal held enough water to attract kingfishers and herons, enough to float a canoe or even a small barge.

"Yeah, there's some water in there now," James Tuttle, structure maintenance supervisor for the Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud), said last week.

"That's probably 5 feet deep."

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On a morning in March 1960, after 27 inches of rain fell in four days, Marie Sirucka stepped to the back porch of her farmhouse in Masaryktown to look for signs of flooding.

"I screamed to my husband, "The water is almost to the house,' " said Sirucka, 89.

By the time workers from the feed co-op arrived with a truck to move the family's furniture, water had flowed into their house and ruined their new Chevrolet Impala. The floodwater kept rising until it killed all 12,000 of the Sirucka's chickens; it didn't fully recede until after Hurricane Donna had passed that September.

"It seemed like the water would be there forever," said her daughter, Sidney Romine, 69.

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Though separated by 44 years and several miles, these two images of a storm's aftermath _ one benign, one devastating _ are closely related. The flood of 1960 inspired not only the creation of Swiftmud but the Masaryktown Canal and several other flood-control projects.

Another connection is that this year, after Hurricane Frances, Masaryktown received only minor street flooding _ at least partly because the runoff was diverted into the canal.

In other words, the water that has brought the canal to its highest level since the El Nino year of 1998 might otherwise have been causing some of the same destruction as the flood of 1960.

"Pretty certainly, it would have been really bad without (the canal)," said Dale Twachtmann, Swiftmud's executive director for most of its first decade.

Anyone who thinks Frances caused serious problems in Hernando should consider what happened during Donna and in the soggy months preceding it, said Derrill McAteer, a Brooksville developer and banker who was the longtime chairman of the district's board.

"There was water all over Hernando County. There was water over every road leading into Brooksville," he said. Water that backed up around Peck's Sink, southwest of Brooksville, submerged Wiscon Road under 5 feet of water. A Swiftmud map of the limits of the 1960 flood in and around Masaryktown shows a pool shaped like a thick snake _ more than 5 miles long and, at some points, a mile wide.

"There was water in a lot of places where I haven't seen water since," said Alvin Mazourek, the county property appraiser, who, in 1960, was a high school freshman living in Masaryktown.

He remembers that flooded pastures supported fish and ducks for much of the year. At the time, most residents of Masaryktown _ which had been formed four decades earlier by Czechoslovakian immigrants _ were farmers; many of them raised chickens that became trapped in coops as the water rose.

"There was approximately 50,000 chickens that drowned and several houses that flooded, specifically down Benes (now Benes-Roush) Road," Mazourek said.

No one lost more chickens, or was displaced from their home for longer, than Frank and Marie Sirucka. They had moved to the farm on Benes, just east of U.S. 41, seven years earlier, she said. Her husband, now deceased, had worked in a shoe factory in Endicott, N.Y, while she was a hairdresser. They thrived in Florida, though they neither knew much about, nor cared much for, raising chickens.

"I didn't hate it, but I didn't enjoy it either," said Marie Sirucka, who was born in Europe and still speaks with a noticeable accent.

"It was a lot of work. I guess it is what you would now call 24-7."

They built chicken coops and increased the size of their flock from 2,000 to 12,000. With Marie Sirucka styling hair on the side, they saved enough money to buy the 1960 Impala. When the storm hit, they had a chest freezer stocked with home-made sausages, a recently slaughtered pig and chickens, and an Eastern European treat baked by one of Marie Sirucka's customers.

"I remember those 11 apple strudels right across the top of the freezer," Sirucka said.

"That freezer was slam-full of food," said Romine; she, along with her two daughters, was living with her parents while her husband, a Marine, served a two-year stint on an aircraft carrier.

The ground was already saturated from the 77 inches of rain that fell in 1959, the highest annual total ever in Hernando. Sirucka was slightly concerned that she had encountered water on U.S. 41 the night before the flood.

But she didn't expect to see water in the yard the next morning and certainly not to see it rise as fast as it did _ leaving the family only enough time to stuff clothes into the attic and pile one load of furniture in the co-op truck.

"When we left, the only clothes we had were the clothes on our back," Romine said.

It was only later they learned the chickens had drowned, along with a calf, in a bowl shaped pasture that was filled with 25 feet of water. The rotting remains of animals, and the food in the freezer, made it unsafe for them to make anything other than short visits back to the house until after Hurricane Donna.

In the meantime, seven family members lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Masaryktown and scraped by on the earnings from a makeshift hair saloon.

"I was doing hair in my sister's garage, washing people's hair in the wash basins," Sirucka said.

"Nobody seemed to mind."

Alfred McKethan, the chairman of what is now SunTrust Bank/Nature Coast, and other community leaders started working immediately to resolve the problem.

The state legislature passed the bill in 1961 approving the creation of Swiftmud, which began operating with three employees the following year. Because McKethan was the political force behind the district's creation, Twachtmann said, its offices were predictably located a few blocks from the bank.

"He knew what he was doing every minute and he wanted it to be in Brooksville," Twachtmann said. "He was a doer.

A short time later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started planning more than a dozen flood control projects in Central Florida, though the Masaryktown Canal was one of only four completed.

This was not necessarily because of McKethan's influence, Twachtmann said. "It was a matter of what was needed. But (McKethan) did feel very strongly about Masaryktown."

Sirucka, on the other hand, gives him full credit.

"Mr. McKethan had the canal put in. You have to give him full credit for that," she said.

Swiftmud agreed to pay for the land and for 17 percent of the construction costs, Twachtmann said, while the Corps paid the rest. The total expense of digging the 5.6-mile long canal, installing the many culverts that lead into it and building a new railway bridge just east of U.S. 41 was $768,000.

Compared to other public works inspired by the 1960 storm, Twachtmann said, "it was a very small project."

It doesn't seem that way when you drive the length of it, as Tuttle did last week. Swiftmud maintains the canal, and supervising this work is Tuttle's job.

He unlocked a gate off Ayer's Road, just east of Masaryktown, and drove a few hundred yards to the point where the canal starts, fed by two 6-foot high culverts.

The northern 2 miles were dry, as the entire canal almost always is, and looked like a wide swath of pasture holding a 15 foot-deep trough.

Though the district does not track water levels in the canal, said Swiftmud spokeswoman Rebecca Courier, it last held water in 2002 and last held "a significant amount" of water in the El Nino year of 1998.

Intermittent puddles could be seen in the bottom of the canal south of the Pasco line, a stretch of the canal that Tuttle, who grew up nearby, remembers being consistently full during much of the 1970s.

"The water was way up that canal bank," he said. "I remember catching some big old speckled cat here."

Farther south, enough water had accumulated to obscure the bottom of the canal and to make it resemble a navigable waterway. Though it was not feeding water into Crews lake, as it is designed to during extremely high water, it was holding a large volume, acting like an extended drainage retention area, Tuttle said.

"There's a lot of water in here," he said.

If the canal offers a good lesson in how to protect residents from storms, Sirucka has an even more universal lesson _ how to cope with them.

Her house, because it was flooded for so long, needed extensive repairs after the water receded, which, as best she can remember, were completed without the help of insurance money.

This setback was followed by another. They moved to Zephyrhills to manage a farm, while renting out their own _ to a couple who failed to pay several months' rent.

When they returned _ producing chicks rather than eggs to save labor _ Sirucka opened a beauty parlor in Masaryktown. After they sold the farm in 1969, Frank Sirucka eventually found work building houses in Spring Hill _ "for $4 an hour. And we thought we would be millionaires because we had never made $4 an hour before."

The storm was inconvenient and painful, she said, but she never saw it as a tragedy.

"I don't think I ever worried about anything," she said.

"It just came and went and we kept on going."