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St. Johns River floods after Irma

DOESN’T BOTHER HIM — This heron is intent on fishing Sept. 13, unconcerned about how high the St. Johns River will rise, swelled by stormwater from Hurricane Irma.

DOESN’T BOTHER HIM — This heron is intent on fishing Sept. 13, unconcerned about how high the St. Johns River will rise, swelled by stormwater from Hurricane Irma.

BEACON PHOTO/MARSHA MCLAUGHLIN

“The creek is risin’.”

That’s what Tanya Ebersole had to report on Facebook Tuesday, Sept. 12, as she moved belongings back into her home situated along a canal just north of the Whitehair Bridge and road-accessible from County Road 42.

Ebersole has back-of-her-hand knowledge of the St. Johns River — the longest river in Florida and one of the few north-flowing rivers in the world.

She grew up in Astor at what is now known as Blair’s Jungle Den.

From Astor to DeLeon Springs to her current address — technically in DeLand — on the Lake County side — the river’s banks have been her yard.

Over the summer, Ebersole said, the water level dropped lower than she had seen in years.

Then there was Irma.

“Now, it’s still coming up,” Ebersole said. “Just today, I could tell a 6-inch rise. I’m sure that it was steadily getting higher in the last couple of days, but I wasn’t out there. In Astor, those people are already at flood stage.”

Indeed they are.

Ebersole said she has viewed some Astor residents’ aftermath pictures on Facebook.

“They’re walking in river water in their living room,” she said.

The last time she saw the St. Johns rise to its current level was after Tropical Storm Fay in 2008.

Ebersole, who owns Camelot Custom Construction Inc., was in the middle of building a two-story home on Bartram Road in Astor when the river on one side and a canal on the other became “one huge body of water,” forming a peninsula.

Subcontracted workers balked at trying to get through the water, but Ebersole refused to give in.

“I went to Astor Ace Hardware and bought 17 pairs of rubber boots,” she said, laughing.

Because the St. Johns flows north, it tends to rise when there is a lot of rain on its southern end, or when the swamps drain, Ebersole explained.

“But when there’s a lot of rain to the north and a high tide, it backs the river up,” she said. “It takes a while to get to us, and I’m pretty sure that’s what we’re seeing today.”

As Irma roiled northward, in Jacksonville the river rose to levels not experienced since 1846, a year after Florida became a state, The Washington Post reported.

On Monday, the St. Johns River Water Management District “began diverting water from the Upper St. Johns River Basin Project to reduce floodwaters flowing north, providing flood protection for people and property downstream,” the agency reported on its website.

Meanwhile, Laurie Flowers, who lives on Hontoon Road just past the access point to Hontoon Island State Park, is concerned that her now-underwater dock is on the verge of collapse.

“Our boats are so high up they’re almost hitting the dock,” said Flowers, whose husband Mikell Flowers’ late father Capt. William “Bill” Flowers was known as “Godfather of the central St. Johns River.”

The family has lived on and navigated these waters for decades.

Despite residents’ high-water vulnerability, Laurie Flowers said boats are still going by, no more slowly than usual.

“It’s dangerous,” she said. “Our dock is going to fall apart.”

Like Ebersole, Flowers said the last time the river rose to this extent was in 2008, in Fay’s wake.

Typically, she said, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will address rising water by creating additional “No Wake” zones.

She’s not seeing that this time.

FWC spokeswoman Katie Purcell responded immediately to emailed questions. The agency’s local phones were down, and officials statewide were dealing with myriad storm-related issues.

“Public safety is of the utmost importance,” Purcell wrote. “Now that we are managing response and recovery after the storm, putting out safety information remains a key priority. Our officers and leadership are working closely with local, state and federal partners to determine our steps moving forward.”

Anticipating higher levels, the FWC Boating and Waterways Section is updating the public regarding the St. Johns River, Suwannee - Santa Fe Rivers, and Withlacoochee River flood zones, according to agency spokesman Greg Workman.

“At this time, no zones are activated,” Workman stated in an email.

While storm-riders worry, sweat, search for gas and ice and possibly throw cellphones against walls, many evacuees could face a flood of problems, too.

The Santa Fe River, which travels under Interstate 75 in Alachua County, rose 15 feet within 36 hours, according to a Sept. 12 news release issued by the Florida Department of Transportation, which cautioned: “An additional rise is expected within the coming days as water levels from upstream move southward down the river.” Bridges on U.S. 27 and U.S. 41 were closed near the Sante Fe, the FDOT said Sept. 13.

If the river rises to an unsafe level, it will require the full closure of I-75 south of I-10 and north of U.S. 441 in Alachua, FDOT warned.

“Travelers should be prepared for significant delays from tomorrow evening through Saturday. This unprecedented river flooding will also cause closures and extensive rerouting of traffic on U.S. 27, U.S. 41, S.R. 47 and possibly U.S. 121. These routes would not be considered passable,” the agency reported.

- Erika Webb, erika@beacononlinenews.com

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