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‘It just kept coming’: Tropical Storm Eta flooding stuns Tampa Bay residents

Storm surge ravaged coast lines, flooded roads and gushed into homes and garages, while rain water leaked through ceilings and saturated backyards.

The water rose over one step and then another.

Gabriela Class watched with her mother and 10-year-old son, who she lives with in a trailer in the Twin City Manufactured Home Community off Gandy Boulevard, as Tropical Storm Eta rolled over Tampa Bay. By 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, storm surge had forced water over the front steps of their home, and it lapped just below the door.

Class, 28, thought about why she’d moved to Florida from Pennsylvania last December. She was tired of the snow. But it occurred to her, as an unusual November tropical storm bore down on Tampa Bay, that you can’t shovel water.

“I just wanted to get anywhere safe,” she said.

Eta brought storm surge that ravaged coast lines, flooded roads and gushed into homes and garages, and downpours that leaked through ceilings and saturated backyards. Tampa Bay pooled over Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard. Across the street from Class, a woman watched from her mattress as water rose as high as her bed. Residents of Oldsmar and St. Petersburg’s Shore Acres neighborhood watched nervously as water creeped up into their yards.

“The storm wasn’t that bad. It was just the water,” said Oldsmar resident Leland Holland. “It just kept coming.”

Like many Tampa Bay area residents, the force of Eta caught him off guard. The flooding stopped four inches shy of entering his home.

Related: Latest Updates: The aftermath of Tropical Storm Eta

His neighbor wasn’t as lucky. Troy Schlitz has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, but was out of the state when Eta hit. When Holland checked on the house Thursday morning, five inches of water covered the living room floor of the split-level home.

Leland Holland, of Oldsmar, Fla., inspects the flooded living room of his neighbor, Troy Shiltz, which was flooded overnight Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Eta.  Eta dumped torrents of blustery rain on Florida's west coast as it moved over Florida after making landfall north of the heavily populated Tampa Bay area Thursday morning. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
Leland Holland, of Oldsmar, Fla., inspects the flooded living room of his neighbor, Troy Shiltz, which was flooded overnight Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Eta. Eta dumped torrents of blustery rain on Florida's west coast as it moved over Florida after making landfall north of the heavily populated Tampa Bay area Thursday morning. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP) [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | AP ]

It was a similar scene in Shore Acres on Thursday. Jeeps and pick-up trucks inched through calf-deep water in the roads, and water lines stained garage doors.

By the morning, flooding had receded from Dennis McLaughlin’s front yard, adorned with a “SLOW NO WAKE ZONE" sign. But overnight, it was so deep he took a paddle board down his street.

“If it ever floods, that’s the fun part,” he said.

Dennis McLaughlin paddle boards in front of his home in Shore Acres during Tropical Storm Eta. On the right, his home Thursday morning, after Eta's flooding receded.
Dennis McLaughlin paddle boards in front of his home in Shore Acres during Tropical Storm Eta. On the right, his home Thursday morning, after Eta's flooding receded. [ Dennis McLaughlin / Kathryn Varn, Times staff ]

Several streets away, Steve and Bridget Halle assessed the damage in their home and garage. The water started gushing in from the back patio about 10:30 p.m. They rushed to pick up their belongings from the floor. Their sons tossed schoolwork on top of their loft beds. An attempt to sop up the water with towels was futile as five inches of water in total filled their home.

“Day by day, we’ll clean it up,” said Bridget Halle, who was grateful Thursday they’d chosen wood-look tile, instead of actual wood, to outfit their home.

Flooding got so bad in some areas that police and firefighters evacuated people on boats and in Humvees. On the beaches, Pinellas deputies rescued 33 from the harrowing conditions. Tampa police bailed out about a dozen drivers who attempted to navigate Bayshore.

Related: Deputies rescue 33 from high water in Pinellas as Eta slams beach communities
Sandra Chmura, left, and Diane Carr, 59, work to clean Carr's room where she lives at the Twin City manufactured home community at 10636 Gandy Blvd N., in St. Petersburg, on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. The community was flooded overnight by Tropical Storm Eta forcing some to be rescued by local fire fighters and law enforcement. Carr was cleaning a cedar chest given to her by her grandmother. "This is the only thing that has any value that I own," Carr said of the chest.
Sandra Chmura, left, and Diane Carr, 59, work to clean Carr's room where she lives at the Twin City manufactured home community at 10636 Gandy Blvd N., in St. Petersburg, on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. The community was flooded overnight by Tropical Storm Eta forcing some to be rescued by local fire fighters and law enforcement. Carr was cleaning a cedar chest given to her by her grandmother. "This is the only thing that has any value that I own," Carr said of the chest. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

And in Class' neighborhood, St. Petersburg firefighters responded to a collapsed building only to discover chest-deep water in the mobile home park, sparking rescues of 23 people, said Lt. Steven Lawrence.

Class, her son Jayden, and her mother, Sylvia Monserrate, 54, were among them. Soon after the water had risen over their steps, they heard a knock on the door. They opened it to find a fire rescue worker in an aluminum boat, asking if they wanted to go to a shelter.

“I said, ‘Let’s get to safety,'” Class said.

They packed up clothes, food and drinks. Jayden, a fourth-grader at Sawgrass Lake Elementary, grabbed the book he was reading for school: Dog Man: For Whom the Ball Rolls. Then they hopped in, snapping photos and video as the firefighter navigated to the front of the park, where Monserrate had parked her Hummer. It was the family’s first time in a boat.

They decided to stay the night a friend’s house instead of a crowded shelter. Class awoke early Thursday, ready to clean up the water damage.

But when they returned, the inside was dry. The water stayed just below their front door, saving the home. Class credits her father, who had recently raised the mobile home three and a half feet.

“Thank God,” she said.

Staff writers Caitlin Johnston, Douglas R. Clifford, Josh Fiallo and Dennis Joyce contributed to this report.

Jayden Class, 10, left, and Gabriela Class, 28, feel the beginning of rain again as they walk near their home at the Twin City manufactured home community at 10636 Gandy Blvd N., in St. Petersburg, which was flooded overnight by Tropical Storm Eta on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Gabriela and Jayden were among a number of residents in the community who were rescued by local fire fighters and law enforcement.
Jayden Class, 10, left, and Gabriela Class, 28, feel the beginning of rain again as they walk near their home at the Twin City manufactured home community at 10636 Gandy Blvd N., in St. Petersburg, which was flooded overnight by Tropical Storm Eta on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Gabriela and Jayden were among a number of residents in the community who were rescued by local fire fighters and law enforcement. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

• • •

2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

PREPARE FOR COVID-19 AND THE STORM: The CDC's tips for this pandemic-hurricane season

PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm

BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter

Lessons from Hurricane Michael

What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael

What Tampa Bay school leaders fear most from a storm

Tampa Bay’s top cops fear for those who stay behind

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