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  1. Local Weather

From flooding to sinkholes, Hernando residents continue to feel Debby's effects

Marion Bastiani sat in the cool, dry confines of her granddaughter's car Tuesday afternoon as rain pelted the windshield.

About a hundred yards away, Bastiani's house sat in the middle of the new lake that has submerged Brookridge Boulevard, one of the main thoroughfares in the Brookridge community, west of Brooksville. On Sunday evening, as Tropical Storm Debby pelted Hernando County with rain, water started seeping into the home. Sheriff's deputies helped Bastiani onto a giant six-wheeled truck and drove her to safety.

Now, Bastiani watched from the water's edge as an insurance adjuster dressed in waders surveyed the damage. The water had subsided somewhat, but Bastiani's house and several others were still inaccessible by car.

"I'm just praying for it to stop raining," she said.

Storm-weary Hernando residents can relate, yet Debby's slow movement has stretched out the typical headaches that come with foul weather.

Across the county Tuesday, many of the dozens of residents who fled their homes due to rising water had yet to return, while others were starting to clean up.

Many homeowners were on edge — in some cases literally so — after sinkholes opened up in their neighborhoods.

And other residents on the coast and along the banks of the Withlacoochee River kept a wary eye on water levels as Debby slogged east and made landfall near Steinhatchee on Tuesday evening. Forecasters called for sustained winds of 40 mph along the coast, with gusts up to 60 mph.

Since Friday, the storm has dumped in excess of 15 inches of rain on parts of the county. The deluge has caused inland flooding at levels that longtime residents say they haven't seen in decades.

In the area near U.S. 41 and Powell Road, floodwaters in some homes were as deep as 5 or 6 feet.

"I feel for folks that lost their homes and suffered damage," county Commissioner Dave Russell said. "It's one of those events that's impossible to adequately plan or prepare for."

At least 30 sinkholes had appeared on county property by Tuesday morning, forcing several road closures, county engineer Brian Malmberg said during Tuesday's County Commission meeting. One of the largest swallowed both southbound lanes of Mariner Boulevard at Little Road, about a mile north of Spring Hill Drive. One opened under a home on Little, though the house had not collapsed by Tuesday evening.

Three more sizable chasms consumed sections of taxiway at the Hernando County Airport. The airport remained open.

And in Trillium, a subdivision along County Line Road, just east of the Suncoast Parkway, at least 15 sinkholes opened in retention ponds, then near homes bordering the area.

The county late Monday afternoon declared a local state of emergency, hoping to eventually land federal relief funds.

"I think the worst of it is over, but we have a lot of repairs to do," said County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes, who signed the declaration.

At one point Sunday night, some 2,000 Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative customers in Hernando County were without power, according to spokesman Dave Lambert. By Tuesday afternoon, only a few Hernando customers served by WREC or Progress Energy were without power.

The American Red Cross opened a shelter Monday evening for people displaced by flooding, but no one had arrived by Tuesday afternoon. It was unclear Tuesday evening how many residents had to leave their homes. Teams comprised of staffers from the Property Appraiser's Office and the county Development Department had begun to assess damage.

Debby had little impact on Hernando's coastal areas by Tuesday afternoon, though water covered much of the beach at Alfred A. McKethan Park at Pine Island, prompting officials to close the park.

Water pushed up to the top of seawalls in Hernando Beach at high tide on Monday, but did not flow over them, said Carl Honeycutt, service manager at the Hernando Beach Marina.

Residents were asked to be wary during high tides over the next two days as Debby's winds change direction and start to push water onto the coast, said Bay News 9 meteorologist Mike Clay.

"Certainly there's going to be a risk of coastal flooding through (Tuesday) evening, and things should be better with each tide cycle after that," Clay said.

The threat of sinkholes weighed heavily on many residents.

On Tuesday morning, 46-year-old Chris Cook peered over the edge of a sinkhole that opened late Monday in the back yard of his home on Nodding Shade Drive in Trillium. Cook's wife and children went to stay with family members.

"Everybody's really worried; nobody wants to stay in their house," Cook said. "I'm probably eventually going to go, too."

Later, as a light rain fell, Nadine Mercader snapped photos from behind yellow caution tape circling the chasm on Mariner.

Mercader, 58, lives about a block away and has been unemployed since she was laid off from her sales manager job about two years ago. Citizens, the state's insurer of last resort, recently canceled her policy, she said, because her roof is too old. She has a mortgage and has been living on savings and money scraped together by working odd jobs.

She said it was hard not to think about all of that as hurricane season starts and sinkholes opened up around her.

"Am I worried?" she said. "I don't sleep."

The sinking earth comes as little surprise given the nature of the geology on the Nature Coast.

Florida is in the prime of its annual sinkhole season in late spring and early summer. Water in the aquifer supports layers of clay and sand on top of limerock, but that buoyancy effect disappears when levels in the aquifer drop, leaving underground voids, said Dave Arnold, professional geologist with the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Heavy rain in a short period adds significant weight to the soil above the voids, causing the surface to give way.

"The voids are pretty much ready to go," Arnold said. "They just need a trigger mechanism to make it collapse."

Staff writer Barbara Behrendt and staff photojournalist Will Vragovic contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached (352) 848-1431 or