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An end in sight? Heavy rain and flooding batter Tampa Bay region

Rushing water at the Homes of Regency Cove, off of Gandy Boulevard in Tampa, left a tractor submerged in floodwaters Sunday. Flooding also damaged the entrance to the community.
Published Aug. 3, 2015

Nearly three weeks into a spate of soggy weather dumping rain on par with a tropical storm, forecasters said there may be an end in sight — kind of.

"Looks like slow improvement," said Ernie Jillson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "By Tuesday, we should see it coming back to typical summertime activity, but that could still give you a 50 to 60 percent chance of rain each day."

And with the ground saturated, and parts of South Tampa and other parts of the region spending time under water, Jillson said it may take awhile to recover from the deluge.

Rivers flooded and roads were closed for parts of the weekend. Homes were evacuated and manhole covers popped open from the water pressure underneath them. The Gandy Bridge and the Sunshine Skyway were blocked off or restricted for stretches of Friday through Sunday.

Rain has been recorded at Tampa International Airport for every one of the past 18 days.

Chris Brown, an employee of Gandy Bait and Tackle, said the culvert behind the store flowed like rapids Saturday night. He spent his evening chasing fish down Gandy Boulevard.

"You heard the story of Noah's ark," he said. "There was probably a good 8 feet of water, 10 feet of water in that ditch last night."

Some areas have gotten more than 20 inches of rain overall, Jillson said.

"Normally when we see this kind of weather, those kind of totals, we're talking about a tropical cyclone," he said.

Behind the unusual weather, Jillson said, is a weak frontal boundary that moved south to the upper Gulf Coast.

"That has pushed our ridge of high pressure that gives us our normal summertime weather well to the south," he said, putting the Tampa Bay region between two pressure systems, the target of a very wet flow of rain coming from the southwest.

On Sunday afternoon, as more storms approached, forecasters said it would be at least 24 hours before the area dried up.

"It is extremely rare for us to get this much rain over such a large area so quickly," said WTSP 10Weather meteorologist Ashley Batey.

With its sandy soil, Florida can handle rain. The problem lies in poor drainage areas such as South Tampa, where kayakers paddled down a flooded Dale Mabry Highway. By Sunday afternoon, South Tampa had tallied 8 inches of rain in 24 hours and was awaiting more, Batey said.

Other hard-hit areas in Tampa included Bayshore, Gandy and Kennedy boulevards.

Slick roads, sinkholes, downed power lines and blocked lanes meant trouble for drivers. A 59-year-old man from Apollo Beach died Saturday after losing control of his car during a rainstorm, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said.

Bridges also were susceptible to the inclement weather. Sgt. Steve Gaskins of the Florida Highway Patrol reported that wind gusts up to 50 mph closed the Sunshine Skyway to high-profile vehicles for several hours Sunday morning. The Gandy Bridge was closed Saturday night and again Sunday morning due to flooding on the Tampa approach.

As Tampa's high tide approached in the afternoon, residents picked up more than 4,000 sandbags.

The entrance to the Homes of Regency Cove, on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa, caved in under pressure from the flood water, pulling a tractor into a culvert.

The neighborhood's homeowners association president Ron Jeffries said this kind of deluge was uncommon.

"We've had the hurricanes close by, and we've had the flooding, but we've never had something like this," Jeffries said. "It's a dangerous situation."

In a news conference there, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the wastewater system passes 60 million gallons on a normal day. During the record rainfall, however, that number became 155 million gallons.

Wastewater pumping stations across Tampa overflowed, prompting the city to remind residents that standing floodwater contains insects, animals and sewage.

Buckhorn blamed the antiquated drainage system for mass flooding and urged the City Council to invest in upgrades.

Near the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs, 21 consecutive days of rain and the afternoon high tide caused the Tarpon Bayou to breach its seawall. Dodecanese Boulevard flooded with several feet of water.

George Hondros, a restaurant manager at Dimitri's on the Water, said business has declined 80 percent because of the heavy rain and swamped streets.

The water rose more than a foot deep on the sidewalk, seeping into the restaurant. A rug in the entrance of the restaurant was waterlogged, and the wood on the front door chipped away from water damage.

Hondros said he won't bother repairing the wood quite yet.

"It's going to happen again tomorrow," he said.

Voula Papadopoulos, who lives nearby on Riverside Drive, said 2 inches of water flooded her living room this week, and that the plants in her yard are dying from excessive water. Every passing car brings a new wave.

"It's a lake," she said.

Jillson said the rain does have an upside: aquifer replenishment.

"It never hurts to have a little extra rain outside of those areas that don't rain well," he said.

He said once the rainy activity moves north, the region "should return to normal pretty quickly."

Normal, though, doesn't mean an end to the rain.

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

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