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Amid Hurricane Hermine flooding, Pasco officials try to avoid last year's mistakes

NEW PORT RICHEY

Pasco County's emergency management chief said officials this year are stepping up efforts to assess the damage from Hurricane Hermine to more swiftly and accurately document the impact on residents.

On their fourth day of evaluating neighborhoods, officials said Tuesday that they had inspected more than 1,000 homes in west Pasco County. They declared nine homes destroyed and 297 with major damage, according to Kevin Guthrie, Pasco's emergency services director.

When record rainfall swept over Pasco County in August 2015, damage assessments didn't begin until almost three weeks later.

But Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker said that was because while Hermine passed after about three days, rain pummeled the county for weeks last year, making it difficult to conduct a comprehensive and accurate assessment at any one time.

On Tuesday, Pasco still found itself dealing with Hermine's aftermath. The Anclote River dropped by about 4 inches to 21.3 feet. Officials estimated it would fall below the 20-foot flood level by Thursday.

But waters that have engulfed homes in the Bass Lake area continued to rise as rainwater drained into the lake, which is a natural watershed.

"All of that rainwater that we had is flowing in this direction," Guthrie said. "That's why as it collects the drainage and runoff, it's going to continue to rise. …

"It's hard to say when all this will go down. Last year it took weeks."

Jerrold Mace's home on Ritz Lane in New Port Richey was surrounded by about 3 feet of water Tuesday as nearby Bass Lake overflowed right up to his front door. His home was spared only because it sits 4 feet above ground.

He and his wife drove their cars around the corner to higher ground before the storm, so they avoided any real property damage beyond landscaping problems. But they have to ride a small johnboat from their front door to the end of their driveway to leave the house, or to walk their three Labrador retrievers.

"We now have water-round property, not waterfront property," Mace said. "It's okay; it's just part of living on the lake."

Evacuation orders remained in place Tuesday, affecting about 2,480 residents. The Bass Lake area was still under a recommended evacuation, as were the Magnolia Valley area and Lake Worrell. That's a total of 1,733 homes.

An additional 744 homes were under mandatory evacuation in the Elfers Parkway area along the Anclote, the Suncoast Gateway Mobile Home Park and the Blue Heron Mobile Home Park. A mandatory evacuation at the Worthington Court Apartments was lifted Monday.

Electrical inspector John Burns said county employees worked more than 10-hour days to deliver water and cleanup kits to residents over the weekend and through Tuesday.

Gulf Coast Mobile Home Park was swamped with more than 20 inches of water, Burns said, and many residents there were grappling with debris and storm cleanup through Tuesday.

"It was just pretty overwhelming," he said.

Guthrie said the county has $300 million in stormwater improvement needs but has no realistic way to pay for such a massive overhaul. Only about $3 million in projects was completed last year.

So, as a more immediate solution to address chronic flooding, officials are looking at buying out flooded homeowners. The goal, Guthrie said, is to acquire as many homes in flood zones as possible and convert those areas into parks or retention ponds to avoid the threat of flooded homes altogether. He plans to apply for a $4 million grant next year to acquire property along the Anclote River and bulldoze those homes.

In his first six months as Pasco's top emergency services official, Guthrie said the county will conduct more timely assessments of storm damage going forward. But he walked back statements made earlier Tuesday that his predecessor's delayed efforts last year contributed to the state being denied federal disaster relief funds.

A county has to prove at least $1.7 million worth of damage and the state must show $27 million of losses in order to qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency aid, Guthrie said.

After the 2015 record rains, Florida fell $12.7 million short of qualifying for FEMA funds. Even if Pasco had been more accurate in its evaluations, Guthrie said, the county could not have realistically filled the deficit for state funding on its own.

He said Baker invited him to dinner Tuesday to go over the figures after Guthrie described last year's efforts as "a failure" to the news media.

Times staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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