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Family needs no geyser, but gets one anyway

Eric and Sue Chapman survived Hurricane Jeanne with nothing worse than a brief power outage, but a Pinellas County cleanup early Monday ruptured a water pipe that sent 6 inches of water into their home.

A county highway worker clearing a downed pine tree from West Lake Boulevard pushed the tree into a fire hydrant hidden in the darkness and debris, officials said.

The pressure caused the water main connected to the hydrant to burst. The resulting wash-out wreaked havoc on the back yard of the Chapmans' house on Rolling Hills Drive.

Six inches of water flooded nearly all of the Chapmans' 2,500-square-foot home.

Rushing water opened a crater about 6 feet deep, 20 feet long and 8 feet across that swallowed several bushes, part of a fence and the family's trampoline. It also deposited about a foot of sand throughout the back yard and inside the family's lanai. The pool itself resembled a vat of quicksand.

Pinellas County is taking responsibility for the mistake and the cost of repairs, officials said Monday.

An investigation by the Pinellas County Risk Management department found the county liable for all damage caused by the accident, said Pat Morea, claims manager for Pinellas County Risk Management.

"We know that it was our operator who struck (the hydrant)," Morea said. "We recognize that this is a hardship on these individuals and we want to move as quickly and efficiently as possible" to settle the claim.

The tree most likely was being removed with a front-end loader, county claims adjuster Greg D'Amario said.

County highway department officials Monday would not name the operator responsible for the break or discuss any potential discipline that employee faces.

The county will pay for all repairs, cleanup and destroyed personal property, Morea said. Once her department receives documentation of all the Chapmans' losses, the matter should be settled within a few days.

Compensation for damaged items will be based on their depreciated value.

That means the Chapmans, who had their waterlogged six-year-old carpet stripped out Monday, will not receive a check that will cover the total cost of new carpet. Instead, they will be reimbursed for the market value of their used carpet.

Sue Chapman, 36, said her family would have to stay with extended family or friends for about two weeks while the house is cleaned and dried.

"It's gross," she said. "But in the meantime we have a beach for our pool."

Eric Chapman, 39, said he woke up about 1:30 a.m. feeling something was wrong. He stepped out of bed to find ankle-deep water.

"I just freaked out and ran down to check on the girls," said Chapman, district sales manager for Standard Abrasives. "I was in a panic mode."

After leaving his children, ages 4, 6 and 10, across the street with neighbors, Eric Chapman and several neighbors raced back to his house to try and contain the flooding.

They had little success until they found the source of the stream and county utility workers shut down the water main, Chapman said.

"We wouldn't have made it without them (the neighbors) helping with our kids and coming over with their brooms," he said.

Neither the Chapmans nor county officials could say how long the water flowed after the break.

Along with furniture, cabinets and a collection of CDs and DVDs, the Chapmans lost family photos and Eric Chapman's diploma from Indiana University.

"I just feel so bad for them," said neighbor Sue Montone, whose daughters looked after the Chapman children Monday. "They didn't need that. We don't even live in a flood area. We're not supposed to get flooded. I don't even know how you figure out where to start."

Sue Chapman said the first step will be to fill in the large hole in her back yard, which poses a safety hazard to children in the neighborhood. Although she dreads the long restoration, Sue Chapman said she was glad her family is safe and that nothing worse happened to her home.

"At least it wasn't sewer water," she said. "I couldn't live here then."