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Less than one year after historic flooding, Alafia River spills its banks again

LITHIA — Frank Rodriguez was still several hundred yards from his house Monday when he pulled his SUV to the side of the road and changed into a pair of beach shoes.

Ahead of him, the way home along River Drive was submerged. He was spared a wade through knee-high water when a neighbor in a Jeep with 4-foot tires gave him a ride.

"Tomorrow it will be deep enough for the kayak," Rodriguez said.

Hurricane season doesn’t start until June 1, but flood-weary residents along the Alafia River in Lithia already are dealing with submerged streets and anxiously watching rainfall forecasts.

The river, which flooded at near historic levels during Hurricane Irma, is expected to reach a peak of 14 feet — one foot above flood stage — by early Tuesday. The reason is about 5 inches of rain that have fallen in the area, according to the National Weather Service office in Ruskin. The agency issued flood warnings for the Alafia and the Little Manatee River at Wimauma.

"We’ve gotten lots of rain over the last week or two," said agency meteorologist Stephen Shiveley, who added that storm runoff may still be making its way into the two rivers. "That can mean potentially rivers can rise even more."

The longer-term forecasts are only adding to residents’ worries. More tropical showers and thunderstorms could be headed to Tampa Bay as a low pressure system developing in Western Caribbean waters is expected to track up through the Gulf of Mexico.

It has the potential to develop tropical conditions over Gulf waters, according to the National Weather Service.

RELATED: Forecasters monitoring system in Caribbean as rain persists across Tampa Bay

The system has a 20 percent chance for development in the next five days, forecasters said. But even if it doesn’t, it is expected to produce heavy rainfall over southern Florida as it makes its way toward Tampa Bay in the second half of the week.

The Alafia River floods on average twice a year but usually not until later, during the rainy season. The cumulative impact of heavy rainfall in recent days has left residents scrambling to prepare.

Most houses in the area close to Lithia Pinecrest Road are built on stilts but flood waters can still damage cars, lawn mowers and anything else stored on the ground.

"I’m picking up anything that can float away," said Rick Klingensmith, a security guard whose home sits more than 14 foot above the ground.

It’s not surprising that residents are wary.

In September, rains from Hurricane Irma flooded the area, causing the river to reach 22.8 feet, the fifth-highest flooding since records began in the 1930s.

FROM 2017: Swollen by Irma, Alafia River driving people from their homes in Valrico

Along River Drive and the adjacent Squirrel Run Way, all but three homes suffered water intrusion, neighbors said. That included several built on stilts.

In all, about 130 homes and buildings along the Alafia were inundated with water.

Mary Lyons, whose home flooded about waist-high during Irma, was keeping an anxious eye on the advancing water Monday afternoon. After the September storm, she slept in a tent for more than two months until her home was repaired.

"We’re nervous," she said.

The flood warning for the Little Manatee shows it reached flood stage at 11 feet on Sunday night and is expected to rise to near 13 feet by Tuesday morning, forecasters said.

Staff writer Devin Rodriguez contributed to this story. Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

     
   
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