Around midnight on June 24, people living in apartments along 15th Street, just north of Fowler Avenue, awoke to water flowing under their doors.
"About 3 feet of water was in those people's homes," said a man who gave his name as the "Sign Man," gesturing to some dreary pink apartments on 15th Street. "Every one of them from here on down had to move out."
The culprit was Tropical Storm Debby, a slow-moving storm that dumped 6 to 12 inches of rain on Hillsborough County over nearly three days.
The poor neighborhoods west of the University of South Florida were among the hardest hit areas around Tampa. Some residents said the brown water rose to the door handles of their cars.
Because of previous flooding, Hillsborough County had spent about $24 million on drainage improvements in the area before Debby, including creating two retention ponds totaling 7 acres. But the system couldn't stand up to the Debby deluge.
"The problem with Debby is that it got over us and just stopped," said Mike Williams, head of engineering in the county Public Works Department.
Now the county is spending another $8.5 million on a pumping station and a force main — a large pipe that moves water under pressure — that should solve the problems.
"Once that gets done, that's going to help a lot of problems in this area," Williams said.
The flooded neighborhoods lie in a nearly flat bowl called the Duck Pond Basin. Water drains from the north and west into Duck Pond West, and then is carried to Duck Pond East northwest of University Mall.
The main drainage route out of Duck Pond East is a pipe that runs south on Club Drive toward the Tampa city limits. On the night of the flood, the county pumped as much water as it could out of the Duck Ponds, but the southbound drainage pipe works by gravity — unlike a force main — and has limited capacity, Williams said in an interview.
On June 24, the county pumped water out of Duck Pond East until about 8 p.m.
"What happened at that point was we couldn't pump any more because downstream was flooding … and the water got to a level in this Duck Pond East that made it so the pumping really wasn't effective because the gravity line was doing all it could," Williams said in a presentation to county commissioners July 18.
The solution now in the works is to leave the current gravity line in place, but to build a pump station on Duck Pond East that will force the water east along the force main to 30th Street, then south to the Hillsborough River. Contractors will drill underneath Fowler Avenue to lay the pipe without closing the intersection.
Meanwhile, Tampa city officials are building their own pumping station on Doughnut Pond on 112th Avenue, another area Debby flooded. Like the county's counterpart, the pumping station will send water east through a force main to 30th Street, then to the river.
The $8.5 million for the pumping station and force main came from a combination of sales tax revenue, storm-water fees and state grants. The work should be finished in the spring of 2013.
"I think every component of the projects that are completed helps reduce flooding," said Chin-Feng Ho, the county's stormwater team leader.
Still, Pastor Gary Reckart of the Jesus House church says he feels no safer with the improvements. said he is waiting for a report by an independent engineer the county hired to assess the drainage system. Williams said the report isn't finished.
Water was 6 inches above floor level in the church the night of the flood, Reckart said, and a foot high in storage buildings. It destroyed stored donations to the church's homeless ministry and food pantry and burned out an ice machine.
"We are in buildings that are sick with mold," Reckart said.
The church was not covered by flood insurance, Reckart said, because maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency did not show the neighborhood to be in a flood zone.
Reckart blames the county for the damage because it did not pump the Duck Ponds enough in the days leading to the storm and failed to notify people in the neighborhood that a flood was coming.
"We're looking to the county to make us whole," Reckart said. "So far they haven't done that."
The county disagrees. Deputy County Administrator Lucia Garsys said water was pumped out of the Duck Ponds before the storm, but the pumping had to stop because of the problems downstream. Garsys said county workers were in the area to assist residents in evacuating their homes June 25.
Some people do appreciate the county's work. Schoolgirl Mayra Moran said her family started packing their belongings as water seeped under their apartment door. The water did not rise enough to force them out.
Told about the county's drainage work, Mayra translated the news in Spanish to her mother, Maria Zamudio.
"Thank you, thank you," Zamudio said.