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As Irma flooded Alafia homes, Swiftmud sent more water their way

By Christopher O’Donnell, Times Staff Writer
Mary Lyons a victim of recent flooding of the Alafia River, now lives out of a tent outside her home because the mold in her home makes her feel sick. She and other residents are questioning a decision by the Southwest Florida Water Management District to open gates at the Medard Reservoir during Hurricane Irma, adding to the flooding. [GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times]

LITHIA — Having lived along the Alafia River all his life, Mike Cribbs has seen plenty of floods.

But the near record-level surge of water that inundated his home in the wake of Hurricane Irma just didn’t make sense to him.

Lithia received only about 6 inches of rain as the storm passed over. Yet, the river crested at almost 23 feet, some 10 feet above flood stage, and intruded even into stilt homes that sit 10 feet above the road.

There had to be water coming from somewhere else, he said.

He was right.

As Irma approached Florida, the Southwest Florida Water Management District on Sept. 5 opened two flood gates at the southwest corner of the Medard Reservoir releasing about 69 million gallons of water per day toward the Alafia. After Irma’s rainfall raised the level of the reservoir by more than 3 feet, water also began to flow out of a weir toward the river.

At its peak, the reservoir was discharging 191 million gallons of water per day into the already swollen floodwaters of the Alafia.

Water management district officials say the river would have burst its banks anyway and that the discharge from the reservoir, which runs through Turkey Creek before reaching the Alafia, added only about 1.5 inches to the floodwaters.

But residents whose homes were damaged scoff at that claim and blame the agency for contributing to the flooding, the worst along the Alafia since Hurricane Donna in 1960, according to the National Weather Service. It has deepened the mistrust between the agency and some residents who feel their homes are put at risk to protect more wealthy homes in the area.

"It’s not the first time they’ve done it," said Mary Lyons, whose single-story home on River Drive close to Lithia Pinecrest Road took in water up to the ceiling. "When water comes in as fast as it did, we know they’ve opened the reservoir."

It’s difficult to assess the impact of the discharge.

The closest U.S. Geological Survey gauge between the reservoir and Lyons’ stretch of the river is downstream from Turkey Creek. The gauge doesn’t measure outflow solely from Medard but also from the creek and parts of the Alafia watershed.

Kevin Grimsley, a hydrologic data chief at the USGS office in Lutz, said the water management district underestimated the effect it had on the flooding but only slightly. Based on district numbers, the reservoir discharge would have added about 2 inches to the river level at the peak of the flood.

Rainfall in the river’s headwaters from as far east as Polk County, where the eye of Irma passed, could account for the near-record flooding, he said. And the ground was saturated even before Irma.

"If it didn’t rain that much around the Lithia area, that doesn’t mean it didn’t rain a lot more in the headwaters close to the where the eye went across," he said.

Located about 6 miles east of Brandon, the Medard Reservoir is a popular recreational spot for anglers and boaters. Once a phosphate mine, it has been reclaimed with growths of Kissimmee grass, bulrush, and cattail. Trees dot the far shoreline where it becomes part of a county park with places to fish, camp, picnic and swim.

The reservoir covers more than 750 acres and holds about 1.4 billion gallons. It is used to replenish the aquifer.

The decision to open the two gates in the southwest corner of the reservoir was made by the water management district’s chief structure control analyst and approved by the structure operations manager.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was forecasting 8 to 11 inches of rain from Irma and officials wanted to create additional room in the reservoir to cope with that, said spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh.

"Not opening the gates would have placed the reservoir’s structural integrity at risk and have endangered the residents and property downstream of the reservoir," she said in an email.

Agency technicians opened the gates by turning two wheels on a small metal platform at the reservoir. The order was given orally. Officials told the Tampa Bay Times there were no records that showed any discussion about the decision and how it might impact the river.

Jerry Mallams, an operations land management bureau chief with the water management district, said it was the right decision. The extra storage created in the reservoir also meant a slow down in the flow of rainwater from the Little Alafia River, a tributary upstream of Medard.

"I would feel comfortable with those operations again," he said.

Homeowners along River Drive and Squirrel Run Way in east Hillsborough are accustomed to the river flooding. The two roads are just north of a point where the meandering Alafia makes a 180-degree turn. Most houses are on stilts and a canoe or jon boat is a must have.

Jim Martin knows the area well. He spent time there as a child and his mother lives on Squirrel Run Way.

After Irma, 21 inches of water penetrated her home.

He said the flooding is much worse since neighboring developments like River Hills Country Club sprang up in recent years. He questions why that development didn’t flood.

Residents also ask why the reservoir alarm system did not sound ahead of the Sept. 11 flood and why first-Saturday-of-the-month testing has not occurred for more than two years.

Water management officials said it is only sounded when the dam fails. The testing stopped because the agency is in the process of decommissioning the system as part of a switch to a mobile-phone and internet alert system.

Since her home flooded, Lyons has not been able to return home. For the first few weeks she lived in a hotel with emergency housing payments from FEMA.

When that ran out, she received another FEMA payment intended to help her move into a rented accommodation. She gave it to her daughter to move into an apartment with her grandchildren.

What was left went to buy a tent that she pitched outside her home. She plans to sleep in it until her home is repaired. She has the lung condition known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD. Her doctor has warned her about being inside the damp home for more than 10 minutes at a time.

So she sleeps under the stars and cooks either on a grill or her slow cooker. At night she hears bats and owls.

Only seven of her 26 chickens were left after the flood. They have the run of the impromptu campsite along with three dogs.

She’s hoping to get more help from FEMA with the cost of repairing her home. She knows it might flood again but her and her partner own it outright. Where else could they get a home and three acres of land?

"I’m not leaving it no more," she said. "Why should I give up on something I own outright."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.