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Debby's unusual weather prevented Outfall Canal from halting Lake Tarpon flooding, officials say

The Outfall Canal was built to prevent flooding around Lake Tarpon, but Debby’s high tides hampered use of the canal gate.
Published Jun. 30, 2012

As Tropical Storm Debby lashed North Pinellas with wind and rain last weekend, Lake Tarpon filled up like a bathtub. The water crept up higher than it had been in 40 years, topping seawalls and flooding yards and streets.

Roughly 800 homes surround the largest freshwater lake in Pinellas County. Nearly 100 nervous lakeside homeowners called the Southwest Florida Water Management District, all of them asking the same question:

Why wasn't the agency opening the gates of the Lake Tarpon Outfall Canal to drain the excess lake water into Old Tampa Bay, the way it had so many times before?

Unfortunately, it just wasn't that simple.

"The problem is, the tides and the wind are pushing water in while we're pushing water out," Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix said as the storm raged.

Normally, the water level in Lake Tarpon is 3 to 4 feet higher than the water in Tampa Bay. But unusually high tides were forcing bay water all the way up the 3-mile canal to the lake. Swiftmud kept having to close the canal gate to prevent saltwater from intruding into the lake.

For some lakeside residents, this led to more questions. After all, the Outfall Canal was built in the first place to prevent flooding around Lake Tarpon. And Debby was just a tropical storm. Would they be able to count on the canal to stop the lake from flooding their homes if an actual hurricane hit?

'Some were scared'

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug the canal in the late 1960s to stop flooding around the 2,500-acre lake after heavy rains.

The corps dredged a channel 200 feet wide and 12- to 15-feet deep from the south end of the lake to Old Tampa Bay. If the water in Lake Tarpon reaches a certain level, the gates are opened and water flows down the canal into the bay. That's what's supposed to happen, anyway. But it didn't happen when Debby arrived.

"The water has never been this high since the Outfall Canal was built," said Paul Kempter, a longtime resident of the Lakeshore Estates neighborhood who created laketarpon.org, a website about the lake. "This was something nobody was used to seeing. Some people were very worried, and some were scared."

The tropical storm started pounding the region on Sunday. It wasn't until Wednesday that authorities were able to drain the lake back to its normal level. In the end, there were no reports of flooded homes, but plenty of streets were impassable to low-profile vehicles.

"My street was flooded with lake water," said Clearwater harbormaster Bill Morris, who lives on the west bank of Lake Tarpon. His daughter gave him a lift out of his neighborhood in her Ford F-150 pickup. "People who had the biggest vehicles just helped everybody else get to work."

Worse than Elena

The man who oversees the gates between Lake Tarpon and the bay has a message for lakeside residents: Don't worry about a repeat of the past week's events. It's unlikely to occur again in your lifetime.

"Every storm is different," said David Crane, structure operations manager for Swiftmud. "This weather event happened to hit the whole Lake Tarpon system in an unusual way that was hard to deal with."

In his view, a hurricane or another tropical storm probably wouldn't have the same effect.

So what was different about Debby?

"The most unusual part was the sustained winds, which didn't let up for days. The wind was coming directly up Tampa Bay, blowing straight up the canal," Crane said. "Usually we would anticipate that a storm would be moving. The wind would blow in different directions as the storm moved across the area."

Not even 1985's Hurricane Elena, which hovered in the Gulf of Mexico for days and brutalized Florida's west coast, caused Lake Tarpon to flood like Debby did, according to officials and residents.

With Debby, another factor was very heavy rainfall concentrated in a swath from Lake Tarpon up through Pasco and Hernando counties. Felix, the Swiftmud spokeswoman, said some areas got 14 inches of rain in 24 hours. Rain from the lake's 54-square-mile watershed, which includes Brooker Creek, kept pouring into Lake Tarpon.

"We worked around the clock to get the water down," Crane said. "Sometimes nature takes a different course. With Lake Tarpon, it's very unlikely that anything of this magnitude will happen again."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

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