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Swollen by Irma, region's rivers overflow flooding homes and vehicles

Ronalyn Cribbs, MJ Cribbs and Michael Cribbs ride through Alafia River flooding on River Drive off of Lithia Pinecrest in Valrico. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Ronalyn Cribbs, MJ Cribbs and Michael Cribbs ride through Alafia River flooding on River Drive off of Lithia Pinecrest in Valrico. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Sep. 13, 2017

VALRICO — All day Monday, neighbors on River Drive in Valrico watched in fear as the Hurricane Irma-swollen Alafia River inched toward their front doors.

It was worse after dark, the floodwaters encroaching in black silence.

The threat was too much for Justin Lyons' mom, who was rushed to Brandon Regional Hospital after a panic attack.

He stayed to keep their double-wide home safe from looters, but then fled himself at 3 a.m. when waters inundated the house.

"It's devastating," said Lyons, 29. "So much stuff has been lost."

On a day when life was beginning to get back to normal for many Tampa Bay residents, the impact of Hurricane Irma was only just starting for hundreds living near major rivers whose homes were inundated with flood waters in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.

In Hillsborough, 129 buildings were reported flooded along the Alafia, Little Manatee and Hillsborough rivers.

The Anclote River in southwest Pasco County had risen more than 4 feet above flood stage by late Tuesday morning, covering streets within Anclote River Estates and neighboring Anclote River Acres, communities just south of State Road 54.

And in Hernando, the Withlacoochee River flooded and is expected to rise an additional 2 feet by Sunday, capping out at 16.3 feet, just 0.2 feet below what is considered a major flood stage.

The Hillsborough flooding was the result of rains both within the county and outside it, Hillsborough officials said. Heavy rainfall on already saturated ground was one problem. That was exacerbated by intense rainfall in areas of Polk County where up to 10 inches fell.

That water is swelling Hillsborough's rivers en route to Tampa Bay, said John Lyons, Hillsborough County's director of Public Works.

"Obviously, when a hurricane moves through, we saw very intense bands of rain in a very short period of time," Lyons said.

Hillsborough first responders on Tuesday flew over flooded areas in helicopters and used drones to assess the flooding and look for homeowners in distress.

Lyons said his department will check for more damage to infrastructure when the water recedes in the next couple of days.

The Alafia reached a depth of almost 23 feet Tuesday, about 10 feet above its flood stage and a 6-foot rise from Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

Even some homes built on stilts were inundated. Residents in canoes and kayaks paddled up and down their submerged street Tuesday morning retrieving valuables and medication.

Wade Grooms, 64, who has lived along the Alafia River for 30 years, said he'd never seen it this bad.

His mobile home on Lithia Pinecrest Road is raised 5 feet above the ground on cinder blocks, but water was lapping at his front door.

Two men in a jon boat ferried him to dry land at 9:30 a.m. He didn't know where he would spend the night.

"I'm not going back there," Grooms said. "I don't want the water to trap me."

A half a mile from the river, Mike Cribbs' home should be the safest on River Drive. But water inside the house was thigh-high by Monday morning.

About 3 a.m., he and his wife, his mom and his two children evacuated from their home. On Tuesday morning, Cribbs sat with his wife and stepson eating McDonald's food on the trunk of their car, which was parked on the last dry 10 yards of River Drive.

"I don't know where we're going to go," said Cribbs, a lifelong Lithia resident. "After 57 years, I want to give up."

Help came from Friends of Fishhawk Foundation, a neighbors group that quickly raised about $500 to pay for hotel rooms for flooded-out residents, including the Cribbs family. Other passers-by stopped and left cases of water.

It was a similar scene along other major rivers in the region.

The Anclote River was projected to crest at 25 feet during Tuesday evening's high tide, 5 feet above flood stage. The flood warning is in effect until Friday morning.

"This is still a very significant incident for Pasco County residents," said Kevin Guthrie, assistant county administrator for public safety. "Some are breathing easier, but some are facing catastrophic damage to their personal residences.''

Lydia Scaggs snapped pictures of the floodwater coming up Celtic Drive in Anclote River Estates. Her home survived Irma, but she was ready to evacuate with her 13-year-old daughter, Sadie, on Tuesday, heeding the warning from deputies making the rounds in the neighborhood late Monday evening.

"I've got hurricane insurance, but no flood insurance," she said. She didn't know about flooding problems when she moved into the neighborhood in July.

The Withlacoochee River had risen to 14.5 feet by Tuesday, 2 feet above flood stage.

Terry Price, 63, said he first noticed the rising waters late Monday in the back yard of property on Tiger Street, in a community called Talisman Estates just south of Ridge Manor, after a simultaneous high tide and storm surge.

On Tuesday, he sat with his Shih Tzu and a pack of cigarettes on a wooden porch outside his son's home. It had become an island because of the rising waters of the Withlacoochee River. "The worst part is, it's still coming," he said of the brown, murky water filled with trash, debris and even a small, tan boat sitting in his water-logged lawn.

By 3 p.m. Tuesday, the water had reached across the street — climbing as high as what one neighbor called "belly-button deep" in some places. Nearly every yard had become an extension of the river.

Across the street, Eileen Lempicki, 51, choked back tears as her daughter, Krystal Whitmore, 28, hauled a flat-screen TV and other valuables out of their red-and-white mobile home.

They feared the rising water would soon invade the home where they have lived for a year with Lempicki's husband and Whitmore's two small children.

Lempicki said she has medical problems that cause seizures, and the stress of the storm caused her to have two overnight on Sunday. She worried what else the flooding will bring.

"When it got light out, we came out to see what had happened, and it's just a catastrophe," she said. "As the waters rise, I just get more emotional. … I feel like I'm going to have to start all over again."

Contact Cristopher O'Donnell at Follow @codonnell_Times.