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Hurricane Guide

Debby a wake-up call as emergency managers ask: 'What if?'

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 07:01 PM
VALRICO -

Nanci Chadwick walked her property for two days in waist-high water, counting her losses.

Living along the banks of the Alafia River for nearly three decades, the Valrico resident has learned what needs to be done when a storm is on the way. But like many, she discounted Tropical Storm Debby, expecting the storm to be light and fast, but not too furious.

After Debby hit the area on Sunday and Monday, though, Chadwick discovered the grandkids had failed to tie off her five canoes. And on Monday, before she could go to the store for rope to tie off her two paddle boats, they, too, floated down the river.

"It was an absolute wake-up for me," she said. "We haven't had a flood since '04. But, next time, I'll be more prepared."

As people across the Tampa area sort through the mess Debby left behind, emergency managers are using the storm's surprising impact to argue for better preparedness.

"The question is: If this was a real storm, what would we have done?" said Preston Cook, Hillsborough County's Director of Emergency Management. "Well, this is a real storm.

"I want people to know they should have had a plan in place and been prepared for any eventuality where to go if they are inundated with floodwaters, if power was cut off, if they had to be inconvenienced in any way."

Every river in the area rose during the storm. The Anclote River in Pasco County reached major flood stage, and the Little Manatee River in Ruskin wasn't far behind. The Alafia exceeded flood stage, reaching almost 16 feet by Tuesday, and the Hillsborough River, near Zephyrhills, reached minor flood stage at 10.3 feet.

Many people had to drive through those floodwaters, risking damage to their vehicles.

Motorists who had to drive down, say, Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard, might want to head to the nearest carwash or check with a mechanic if their cars start to sound "funny."

Brackish water is especially corrosive to metal and aluminum, said Ed Chancey, assistant manager for Olin Mott Tire Company on Hillsborough Avenue. That kind of damage can show up two or three years later, he said.

If you do stall out in standing water, don't try to start the car.

"There's a risk of "blowing every rod in the engine," Chancey said. "Water is not combustible, but something's got to give."

Call a towing service, and let a mechanic assess the damage, Chancey said.

Walking barefoot through floodwater also poses problems.

"We've seen a lot of people … playing in standing water," said Steve Huard, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County Health Department. "There are a lot of dangers that come with that, and we strongly suggest people stay out of it."

The biggest danger is bacteria from lawn chemicals or fecal matter that can get into the body through the ears, nose, eyes or mouth and cause major intestinal distress, he said.

Then there's the mosquito issue.

"We expect a very busy next couple of weeks," said Donnie Hayes, general operations manager for Hillsborough County's mosquito control office.

Once the water recedes and becomes still, mosquitoes will lay eggs, and the inundation will begin.

"My inspectors will be out taking samples of standing water and spraying it," Hayes said. "We will also spray in the neighborhoods."

People should call (813) 663-3646 if they have a major infestation, Hayes said.

As of Tuesday, about 1,400 Tampa Electric Co. customers were still without power; crews are working to restore power, said company spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs.

"In this storm, we had a number of trees that uprooted because soil was so wet and limbs broke off because they were water-soaked," Jacobs said.

Before the next storm hits, anyone with trees that could fall onto power lines should hire a professional tree trimmer to come and cut them back, Jacobs said.

This is also a good time to make sure you have flashlights, candles and food that will last three days without refrigeration, Jacobs said.

"Use [Debby] as a reminder it does not take a major category or more powerful storm to really cause a severe impact," the EOC's Cook said.

Residents can pick up a hurricane guide to help them get their plans in order, Cook said. For information, go to http://bit.ly/Loq6sm, www.ready.gov, or call (813) 236-3800.

People didn't take this seriously enough, Cook said. "Because they figured it was just a rain event.

"We didn't know how much it would produce, but we knew the potential. These storms are unpredictable."


yhammett@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7127

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