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Irma Leaves Homes Along Alafia River In Deep Water

Even though Hurricane Irma is well behind us, many neighborhoods remain several feet underwater - including one along the Alafia River near Lithia.

It’s there that Nanci Chadwick gazes at the water and mud separating her from her daughter's home on Rose Street. She shakes her head and said she'd have to come back to check on her later - it was impassable.

Chadwick's used to this scene - she lived across the Alafia River on Josie Lane for 28 years.

"I've been through this too many times - and I moved the hell out," she said with a laugh. Hillsborough County bought her land, she said, so they could return it to its natural role as a floodplain.

Now, Chadwick lives far from the fickle Alafia, in Wimauma.

"We had 28 years in dealing with this," she said. "And my prayers are here, and I'm just hoping everybody's going to be safe."

This scene -- where Rose Street disappears into black water -- is repeated on River Drive and several other streets jutting into the Alafia from Lithia-Pinecrest Road.

It's also repeated across the state. The Santa Fe River northwest of Gainesville threatened to close down Interstate 75, just as evacuees from Irma are streaming back home. And around the Tampa Bay area, rivers reaching flood stage on Friday included the Anclote in Pasco County, the Hillsborough and Little Manatee rivers in Hillsborough County; the Withlacoochee in Pasco and Hernando counties; the Myakka in Sarasota County; and the Peace River in Hardee and DeSoto counties.

Back in Hillsborough, the Alafia River has crested at 23 feet and is gradually falling. The National Weather Service reports it's now just over 17 feet above sea level.

But that drop is of little consolation to Wendy Zeman. She pointed to her son's house, where he was busy dumping soggy carpet onto his front porch.

"I've been out here since I was 11. Thirty-something years. And this is the third flood I've been through out here. And this is the worst," she said. "But you just don't get used to it. You know it's coming, you know there's a possibility. You can prepare for it. But then, it never sets in 'til afterwards."

Nearby, resident Phillip Maiorana was busy picking up trash that had floated onto their street.

"When it first come up, it went all the way up to the stop sign. We couldn't even touch the ground," he said. "But now we're about knee deep right this minute."

Still, both Maiorana and Zeman say disasters like this seem to bring out the best in people. They've had food brought in from several restaurants, and people from the nearby Fishhawk community donated money, food and cleaning supplies.

And it may not last much longer. Marc Austin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin, said residents may be able to dry out soon. That's because the worst flooding usually takes place after storms pass through.

"It generally takes from 24 to 48 hours, so we tend to see a bit of a lag between that heavy rain and the river flooding, which is contrary to aerial flooding or flash flooding you would receive during a heavy rainfall event," he said.

But Austin said it can still be a week before levels return to normal. River crests are like large, lumbering swells that move slowly down river, he said.

"When we do have a hurricane approaching or a tropical storm, or even just a tropical depression, it doesn't take a powerful hurricane to cause major river flooding concerns," Austin said. "It's very important that people have a pre-determined location that they're going to evacuate to, if they live close to those rivers and are in the flood area."

While the Hillsborough River is about to crest, it will impact few people, since most of the river floodplain has been set aside as preserved areas.

That can't be said for places such as the Anclote River in Pasco County, where several neighborhoods remain flooded.

Wendy Zeman, who lives on the Alafia, said people here aren't about to let a storm like Irma uproot them.

“The people that choose to stay, it's because they've been here so long. It's just their community. And everybody's family out here.”

They just know that while sunny skies have returned, the ground for many Tampa Bay-area residents remains a soggy mess.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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