Tampa Bay farmers, horse trainers struggling through wet weather

A truck pours gravel on a driveway after heavy rains in July at Marousa Placiotis’ Noah’s Ark on Wheels petting zoo. 
A truck pours gravel on a driveway after heavy rains in July at Marousa Placiotis’ Noah’s Ark on Wheels petting zoo. 
Published Aug. 15, 2015

ODESSA — Katelyn Whipple fell asleep to the sound of rain on Aug. 1.

She woke up in the morning and looked out her front door in shock: Most of her 10-acre ranch was flooded.

"Nothing like this had happened before," Whipple said. "You feel like you can't do anything."

Since then, Whipple's property has been hit hard by the heavy rains that have pounded the Tampa Bay area since late July.

Whipple is among many Tampa Bay horse trainers and farmers persevering through this year's wet summer — though it hasn't been easy.

Along with her husband, Whipple leases the ranch called Hillside Hunter Jumpers with 25 horses, some goats and a few cats and dogs. The couple have been training and boarding horses for 10 years.

Their training fields are submerged in water, which isn't draining fast enough, and the first story of her house — where she keeps her feed for the horses — is also flooded.

The couple has had to move all of its animals to dry land, an ordeal that has been as costly as it has been stressful.

Other homes and businesses in Whipple's tight-knit farm community were affected, too.

One of those businesses, Noah's Ark on Wheels, is a 10-acre petting zoo that has been operating for 20 years.

Eight acres of the zoo are 2 feet underwater, said Marousa Placiotis, one of its owners.

Noah's Ark's animals serve as therapeutic relief for disabled and foster children, some of the zoo's main visitors. But now the zoo is temporarily shut down, and Placiotis' nearly 80 animals are confined to an acre of dry land on the property.

The zoo also has new, unwelcome additions, Placiotis said: alligators, catfish and eels.

"All of the alligators are moving in," she said. "I've got one big guy right now. It's going after my ducks and chickens. We can't get trappers out here fast enough."

Andrea Whiting, the owner of Arbordale Riding Academy, said it took a week to relocate all of her 34 horses. In the meantime, Whiting said she canoed past a 4-foot alligator to feed her horses hay at the barn.

"It was a huge process," she said.

Whiting said she is scared about what comes next.

"I don't know what the future is going to hold for me," she said with tears in her eyes. "Our properties are beautiful. You get attached and it's very sad."

Many Odessa residents have started GoFundMe pages to raise donations to repair their homesteads.

"I've gotten tons of support," Whipple said.

Whipple has had neighbors, friends and strangers help her move her horses. But now with the threat of alligators and an overflowed septic tank in her field, she doesn't want to ask for more assistance.

"Right now, I don't want anyone out there because it's so gross," she said.

The Odessa community is working closely with Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to drain the rainwater. On Monday, Placiotis said, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis visited her neighborhood. She said he helped secure an 8-inch pump to help her and some of her neighbors reduce their water level. But Placiotis said that the pump isn't big enough to make an impact and that more needs to be done.

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A nearby lake is causing a lot of problems for Odessa residents. The lake overflowed after all of the rain showers, inundating houses that are close to it.

The wet weather that has been soaking the area should dissipate soon, according to WTSP 10News meteorologist Bobby Deskins.

"The next week or so, they'll get some relief," he said. "Anything getting back to normal is good for them. We're breaking this pattern."