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Residents battle, flee rising water

Last January, Judy Hall wanted to celebrate her 60th birthday with something special. She booked a Hawaiian ocean cruise for October. Little did she know she'd have all the water she could handle back home on the Withlacoochee River.

She still plans to fly out of St. Petersburg on Monday. She just hopes her house remains when she gets back.

Nearly everyone in Citrus County knows flooding in Arrowhead is not a new problem. The place floods whenever there is a large amount of rain.

But this time is not like the others, longtime residents say. This time, they're getting out. First, Hurricane Charley piled more water into the river down south. That water soon found its way upstream to Arrowhead. Frances soon followed. Jeanne dumped about 7 inches of rain in Citrus County, adding more water to already flooded banks.

"It's the most water we've seen in the 17 years we've been here," said Tim Channell, owner of Stumpknocker's restaurant on State Road 200.

The restaurant remained open Tuesday afternoon, but water streamed through sandbags piled around the deck to keep the Withlacoochee out. Employees and Channell flung buckets of muddy water back toward the river.

Officials and locals agree the river hasn't gone that high since the 1960s; some even say the 1930s. It's expected to climb to 12{ feet by Tuesday.

Many of the twisting dirt roads leading back to Arrowhead homes were submerged Tuesday. Occasionally, large pickups and sport utility vehicles traveled the roads, but most homes were closed, their owners already out.

Nearly everyone who remained was packing to go to higher ground.

Hall's neighbor Norma Spence was getting ready to go Tuesday morning. She and her husband built their river home 34 years ago. She didn't want to evacuate. She never has before. But this time, the water was too high, and her husband wasn't feeling well.

So, Spence piled on more sandbags, put Mousey _ her grandson's duck _ in the garage with some food, and left with her husband, grandchildren and their three dogs for a Dunnellon motel.

Hall and her husband, Russell, moved to a 1-acre plot in Arrowhead in 1989. They have a white, two-story home on an island where Big Blue Spring meets the Withlacoochee River. Hall collects orchids and does stained-glass pieces. Her husband works in Crystal River. They usually stick it out during floods. Not now.

Tuesday afternoon, Hall and her son-in-law, David Richardson, frantically worked to raise everything off the garage floor. There were the plastic vegetables Hall uses to foil her neighbors in gardening competitions. Hall laughed loudly as she moved them to safety.

Then, the freezer of beer, sodas and Popsicles needed to go up 2 feet. Hall and Richardson each took a side. They tilted the freezer forward. The sounded of cascading metal cans followed. "Oh, I got the sodas in there," Hall cried.

"Something sounds like it's dripping," Richardson said.

"It'll be all right," Hall replied.

As water trickled over the piles of sandbags in front of the garage entrance, Hall stacked items where she hoped they'd be safe. There was no method to the organization, she said.

"Who cares about organization at this point?" she said.

That seemed to be their attitude all afternoon. It'll all be just fine.

When the freezer looked like it would topple from its higher perch, they lifted it again.

The two water moccasins they've killed already? No problem. They didn't think they even needed the water-proof boots that lay on the garage floor.

Hall's four dogs? Safe in St. Petersburg with Hall's daughter, who has three dogs of her own.

Richardson took pleasure in helping Hall clean out her refrigerator, grabbing a chocolate brownie and a frosty Miller High Life.

"Beer and brownies," he said with a smile. "Lovin' life. Can't get no better than that."

Hall laughed and walked out of the garage, looking longingly at her orchids and potted plants. She can't do much about them, she said. They don't do well indoors, so she's leaving them where they are.

Then, she remembered the portable toilet. The large blue toilet with "Gotta Go" written in pink letters on the side leaned up against some brush in her yard. She rented it after the flood of 1998, when she had family members over to celebrate the receding floodwaters. The delivery man told her he'd pick it up when he came back to Arrowhead.

Guess he doesn't come to Arrowhead often, she said, because the Gotta Go is still here. Richardson waded out in the murky, shin-deep water to the toilet. He pushed it onto its side, letting the water flow into it. That way, he said, it would be too heavy to float away.

He strapped the toilet to the "the Hulk," a big green truck halfway submerged in the floodwaters. "Folks are going to laugh at me," he said. "Of all the things to save, the s---house."

That was the last thing to be secured, Hall said.

"Are you sure?" Richardson asked. "Everything you save is what you'll have when you get back."

Hall looked it all over again. When she gets home, some of the water will be gone, she said. But a stinky, dirty mess will remain.

"No one's gonna clean it up except me," she said.

David Richardson secures a portable toilet to keep it from floating away at his mother-in-law's house in Arrowhead on Tuesday. She had rented it after the flood of 1998, when she had family over to celebrate the receding floodwaters. The Withlacoochee River continued to rise Tuesday, threatening many of the homes in the area.

Staff Sgt. Gil Castrana, left, and Tech Sgt. Mike Aultman of the Florida Air National Guard's 125th Fighter Wing, based in Jacksonville, help distribute water and bags of ice Tuesday at a staging area at Stokes Ferry Road and State Road 200 in Arrowhead.