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Rumors set sail on rising waters

Like a child's game of telephone, flood information about the rising Withlacoochee River twisted into rumors and speculation by the time it reached many residents.

The conversation started Tuesday with county officials. Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Ray Hardy told firefighters to go out into areas of the county expected to flood, including Eden Gardens on State Road 44 E and E Trail's End Road near Floral City, and warn residents.

Tell residents the river still is projected to rise from 10 feet to more than 12 feet by next Tuesday, he said. Tell them the mandatory evacuation order still is in place for low-lying areas, commission Chairman Josh Wooten said. Tell them the water may go higher than they've seen before, Wooten said.

By the time news got to Diane Huff, it wasn't quite the same. Huff lives in a mobile home on Schmidt Avenue in Eden Gardens. She has watched water trickle into her back yard for several days now. When a firetruck came by and stopped at her neighbors' house, she called friends to find out what was going on.

A firefighter said the river is going to rise more than 10 feet higher, her sources told her. Huff called the county Emergency Operations Center, well, in a huff.

"I'm telling you, this group of people ain't fixin' to leave," she said.

She demanded answers. A dispatcher told her the firefighters should know the flood predictions. That didn't make Huff feel much better.

"This is all we got," she told a reporter, pointing to her house, a white mobile home decorated with a large painting of an American flag and a cat lazing on the front porch. "It ain't much, but we aren't going to leave."

The problem was, the dispatcher didn't know that somewhere in the rumor mill, the measurement had switched from an increase of at most 2 feet to more than 10 feet. Also, the dispatched didn't know Huff hadn't even talked to the firefighter.

Huff's situation is one of several examples of rumors and fear sending residents into a panic over the rising Withlacoochee.

Yes, the river still is rising. Everyone agrees on that. How much will it rise? The county estimated the river will rise to 12{ feet by early October at Holder and nearly as much at the Croom measuring site.

The National Weather Service forecasts Wednesday afternoon showed the river at 11.1 feet at Holder on Monday and at 11.9 feet at Croom, up from yesterday's 10.75 at Holder and 11.46 at Croom, according to the Southeast River Forecast Center in Georgia.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, relies on the River Forecast Center's predictions, too, said spokesman Michael Molligan.

Regardless of the difference in forecasts, officials want to be cautious. Wednesday afternoon, county officials closed the bridge on State Road 200 at the Citrus and Marion border near Arrowhead. If the water looks like its coming up to the house, get out, Wooten said. Otherwise, emergency workers will have to risk their lives evacuating people who stay at home too long.

"I know they've been told the river is going up," Hardy said. "No one's being forced to leave.

"They need to pay attention to what's happening out there," he added.

The scene was similar at Trail's End Camp, a fish camp near Floral City. There, too, water crept toward the mobile homes, RVs and cabins scattered along a dirt road. Residents at the fish camp said they're not going anywhere yet, though.

Camp owner Dave Vincent is staying put. His general store is surrounded by water. He propped several wooden boards across the water, creating a narrow bridge out to the store.

"You have to cross Catherine the Great's bridge to get here," he said. Cathy is his fiancee's name.

Vincent said the camp will be fine if the water rises only a few more inches. Floral City's elevation is higher than the Holder measuring level, so it'll get less flood water, he figured. He thinks county officials are over-reacting.

"I don't work for any government agency," he said, patting his dog, a yellow mutt named Zeus the Tomato Patch Watchdog Extraordinaire. "But I know more about this river than Ray Hardy."

John Kerry lives out on Little John Avenue near Eden Gardens. He, too, heard the rumors of several feet of water flooding into the neighborhood. The latest rumor? Six to 10 feet of water.

"I mean to tell you that you can't believe how scared people are," he said.

Kerry said he understands the dangers of rising waters. He said he knows it's important not to look to past flood levels and think the water can't go higher. But he said he wished there were a more clear way of getting the word out to residents, so the game of telephone doesn't continue.

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