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Waterlogged Tampa Bay braces for Tropical Storm Erika — and more flooding

Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, left, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Gov. Rick Scott, and Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun of the Florida National Guard stand at a news conference Friday at the Hillsborough County Emergency Operations Center in Tampa for a briefing on Tropical Storm Erika. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, left, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Gov. Rick Scott, and Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun of the Florida National Guard stand at a news conference Friday at the Hillsborough County Emergency Operations Center in Tampa for a briefing on Tropical Storm Erika. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Aug. 29, 2015

Whether Tropical Storm Erika strengthens into a hurricane or dissipates into a tropical depression, it could still bring heavy rainfall to the area next week.

Which raises the question: Can an already water-logged Tampa Bay region take much more of this?

The answer, officials fear, is no.

"It wouldn't take a lot of rain for us to get back to more flooding," said Pasco County spokesman Doug Tobin. "It all depends on what we get, and that's the concern right now."

The bay area is just weeks removed from the record rainfall in late July and early August that flooded homes and roads, led to overflowing lakes and retention ponds, and caused wastewater facilities to spill. It even forced the Gandy Bridge to close — twice.

Pasco County, northwest Hillsborough County and northeast Pinellas County are still recovering from the deluge, which in some parts reached 2 feet of rain over a 20-day period. The Withlacoochee River in Pasco, for example, remained at 14 feet Friday, putting it in minor flood stage — and the river shows no signs of retreating below flood stage until next week.

More than 52 inches of rain has fallen on Tampa this year — 21 inches more than normal for this point in the calendar.

Now comes Erika, expected to hit southwest Florida on Monday and bring more rain to Tampa Bay next week as it travels up the peninsula. With nowhere for the water to go, it could quickly create dangerous conditions.

"If you had normal lake levels and normal conditions, you would see short-term flooding in different areas," said John Lyons, Hillsborough County public works director. "However, because everything is still fairly saturated, lake levels are high, it's hard to predict what's going to happen.

"High-volume water, no mater what level it comes in, won't be helpful at all."

How much rain will come is still unknown. WTSP 10Weather chief meteorologist Jim Van Fleet said to expect at least 2 to 8 inches of rain, but in certain areas, "training thunderstorms" — intense cells that come one after the other, like train cars — can create pockets of heavier rain.

It won't help that today will bring substantial precipitation ahead of Erika, Van Fleet said, or that the storm may gather more moisture as it enters Tampa Bay's soggy atmosphere.

"It could be just a couple hours before we run into flooding," he said.

In Pasco County, 20 temporary pumps continue to flush water from flooded areas. Officials there are keeping a close eye on the Anclote River, which for weeks wreaked havoc in west Pasco County when it spilled over its banks, displacing dozens and causing major property damage.

The Anclote was well below flood stage Friday. But that could change quickly.

As evidence of the area's vulnerability, flooding occurred as recently as Aug. 22 at the Crystal Lakes mobile home park in Pasco after a storm.

Roads were essentially cleared throughout Hillsborough County as of Friday afternoon, though temporary pumps remain in place. Lake levels remain dangerously high in areas like Lutz, Citrus Park and Keystone.

Southeast Hillsborough is in better shape because it saw less rainfall during July and August. Water levels in the Alafia River are falling, but the Brandon area remains susceptible because of a complex drainage system, Lyons said.

Pinellas County is keeping an especially close eye on the Brooker Creek area, which was heavily affected by the summer storms.

Residents in low-lying areas should prepare now, said Sally Bishop, Pinellas County's emergency management director. Pinellas will open its Emergency Operation Center at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

Some counties began handing out sandbags as early as Friday afternoon with plans to offer them to residents throughout the weekend. Additionally, public works employees are checking drains, grates and ditches to remove any blockage or debris.

"We just don't know at this point what this storm is going to bring," Bishop said.

There was one silver lining from the flooding earlier this summer: It helped point out weaknesses in county infrastructure and identify areas that emergency crews need to pay special attention to. And residents are more aware if they live in risk zones.

"I think this time now, people are a lot more prepared," Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman said.

Gov. Rick Scott visited the Hillsborough County's Emergency Operation Center on Friday. He acknowledged this part of the state faces unique difficulties from Erika.

While South Florida isn't very saturated, the governor could not say the same of Tampa Bay.

"It looks like we're going to get some water," Scott said.

Times staff writers Josh Solomon and Ayana Stewart contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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