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Along the Alafia in southern Hillsborough County, neighbors watch the water rise

Heavy rains from Hurricane Ian had swelled the flow of the river that is prone to topping its banks.
Tony Simpson, of Valrico, right, helps his neighbor, Michael Zeman, get his vehicles and trailer out of a flooded road near the 4400 block of River Drive on Friday.
Tony Simpson, of Valrico, right, helps his neighbor, Michael Zeman, get his vehicles and trailer out of a flooded road near the 4400 block of River Drive on Friday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Oct. 1|Updated Oct. 1

LITHIA — Katey Ezell and Tracey Winters know this community: Their relatives populate much of their neighborhood, south of Lithia Pinecrest Road — a few streets, a private campground and a tangle of 4-wheeler trails that back up to the Alafia River.

They’ve lived here their whole lives. Ezell’s grandparents were among the first to live here, she noted, back when “it was all orange — it was nothing.

“True Lithians,” she said.

By Friday, that familiar terrain had become strange, in the same way it often does: The Alafia had jumped its banks in the wake of Hurricane Ian, sending its water halfway or more up the streets that run perpendicular to it. The water was partly submerging cars and fences and mailboxes and making Ezell guess, as she steered a tandem kayak and surveyed the inundation, just where she was.

“The current’s pretty swift,” she said, fighting to get the boat through the undergrowth and passing by the marooned keypad for someone’s front gate.

“Mmm-hmm,” replied Winters, navigating from the back seat.

Ezell, Winters, and their families and neighbors were waiting to see how bad the flooding would get. By Friday evening, it was projected to crest Saturday morning, at a level not much higher than it was now. Both their houses would be dry if that were the case. But they were here during big floods in 1988 and 2017, the latter after Hurricane Irma, and they wouldn’t count on staying dry.

“It just kind of creeps up,” Ezell said. “You can watch it inch.”

Tony Simpson, of Valrico, carries an oxygen machine that he retrieved from his home for his wife, Mary Simpson, on River Drive Friday.
Tony Simpson, of Valrico, carries an oxygen machine that he retrieved from his home for his wife, Mary Simpson, on River Drive Friday. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Those who have lived in the neighborhood a long time know how to prepare for a storm, neighbors agreed. Here, where it floods regularly in hard summer storms, they know to park near the top of the road, and many own kayaks or canoes, to get back and forth between home and dry land when they need to.

“They know it’s coming” in this kind of weather, said Mike Zeman, a resident for 50 years. He’d pulled his recreational vehicle near the top of the road, and the water lapped at its tires. “If they don’t, they better.”

Though the gargantuan and powerful Hurricane Ian largely spared Tampa Bay, the inland flooding along rivers was a delayed form of damage. Friday’s scene in Lithia came from what the National Weather Service called a “moderate flood stage” on the Alafia.

Farther south, in Wimauma, the water seemed to tease how much worse it could have been: It filled the ditches along the roadside; it could nearly kiss the bottoms of the bridges that crossed the Little Manatee River on U.S. 301 and other main roads.

But the flooding of the Little Manatee did not wreak havoc, or even seem to cause much inconvenience. That’s despite a crest that fell just two and a half feet short of the record high-water mark Thursday evening and remained in a “major flooding” designation Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

“We got lucky,” said Candice Bean, reciting what has become the prayer of Tampa Bay since Hurricane Ian’s drift to the east spared the region its worst.

Amelia Bailey, 11, left, and Rosalie Bailey, 9, of Wimauma, play in the Little Manatee River near U.S. 301.
Amelia Bailey, 11, left, and Rosalie Bailey, 9, of Wimauma, play in the Little Manatee River near U.S. 301. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

She was standing on a slope overlooking the Canoe Outpost, a campground and paddle-craft rental site wedged between Little Manatee River State Park and U.S. 301. Sometimes, she said, the river was ankle deep — she and her family went to barbecues and birthday parties under the 301 bridge beside her. Now the whole thing was the river.

Bean and her family live nearby, she said, and had been coming to check regularly on the campground residents who stayed through the storm. Most of them had left. Two had stayed in cabins on stilts, equipped with generators, and another was in an RV. The last she could reach them, they were all fine, she said — but the water was now high enough that they wouldn’t be able to leave their shelters until it drops.

Below her, her children took turns riding on a boogie board towed by her husband in an sport utility vehicle. She watched them frolic, then gestured behind her at the trees across U.S. 301.

“A lot of the trees are bent over like a giant came through and started pushing them,” she said.

In Lithia, Ezell and Winters had almost finished their circuit. They’d started one street over from their homes — a drive of less than two minutes. Forty minutes after they put in, they finally caught sight of their street again. The sun was setting, the treetops turning orange.

They had passed the 8-foot fence, now just a sliver of chain-link, that marked the river’s edge, and steered through floating clumps of fire ants. Their daughters piloted solo kayaks ahead of them; there was some debate over whether the water was high enough to render a particular gate passable. In the distance, someone spotted swans gliding on the surface — a neighbor’s pets, left to the elements, Winters’ daughter said. Ezell peeked inside a mailbox barely clearing the water: Its flag was up, and somebody had mail, but nobody was home.

They floated past a home where the residents sat on a second story balcony. They’d decided to stay put. Ezell worried about them, whether they had enough food and water. She was worrying, too, that the flooding would be a lot worse come Saturday morning and high tide.

“You doin’ okay?” she called across the glassy expanse.

“Yeah, we’re doin’ fine,” a woman called back. The water was up to the tops of the tires of the trucks parked down below.

Ezell shrugged. “You get used to it.”

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage

HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.

FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.

THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?

WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.

SCHOOLS: Will schools reopen quickly after Hurricane Ian passes? It depends.

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

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