Change in the water Rivers and streams in Florida have become hazardous.
The Santa Fe River, usually known for its beauty, is now a hazard
high springs, fla. — The six kayaks stacked in the middle of the floor at the High Springs Adventure Outpost usually would be stored outside the building. Or, more likely, on a hot and sunny day like this one, they would be carrying tourists on trips up and down the Santa Fe River.
The Santa Fe is the lifeblood of this small town in North Florida, one of many meandering rivers and streams that lead to more than 300 crystal-clear springs in Florida’s “Nature Coast.”
But this usually glassy, slowmoving river is now menacing. Hurricane Irma changed the Santa Fe’s personality almost overnight, making it a dangerous conduit for floodwater.
The raging water here northwest of Gainesville has forced the closure of roads, bridges and highways along the river’s path.
“That water is moving so fast right now, it’s an impressive sight,” said Lars Andersen, who owns the Outpost. “It’s also extremely dangerous. And with the fallen trees knocked down by the hurricane, you could be out there and get pinned by a huge log, and that would be it. You’d be trapped.”
Aside from the obvious damage in the Florida Keys and along the southwest Florida coastline, Irma had an effect in almost all areas of the state.
Though winds had died down a bit by the time Irma made it to North Florida, widespread rains soaked an already oversaturated part of Florida and southern Georgia. The rains flooded the Okefenokee Swamp and the Suwannee River.
Creeks and tributaries 20 miles east that feed into the St. Johns River — which caused major flooding in Jacksonville — also are swollen, with water levels cresting at historic levels across the watershed.
The rising Santa Fe came within inches of closing Interstate 75, one of only two interstate highways leading north out of Florida, before it crested late Wednesday and started to slowly recede.
The Santa Fe did close U.S. 27 in High Springs, which forced many businesses to close, even though power had been restored.
“I eat breakfast every morning at Bev’s Burger Cafe, and they couldn’t open today because all their staff is stuck on the other side of the river,” said Maurice McDaniel, a lawyer in High Springs. “It’s scary for the people who live down by the river.”
Mark Sexton, communications and legislative affairs director for Alachua County, which houses High Springs, said officials made the unusual move of knocking on more than 200 doors to tell residents to evacuate.
The cascading nature of the watersheds in North Florida have resulted in several floods in small towns such as High Springs (population 6,000) and Jacksonville, a city of 900,000. More than 342 people had to be rescued from their homes in nearby Clay County. Days after Irma hit, water is still rising in the area.
“It’s gorgeous here; it’s almost beyond description,” said Kimberly Robinson, public information officer for the town of Green Cove Springs in Clay County, which was inundated. Robinson moved to the area 12 years ago from Pittsburgh. “To see it torn apart like this is heartbreaking. It’s four days after the hurricane passed, and trees are still falling. I know the town will come back and recover, but it’s been hard.”
The topography of North Florida seems like a world away from the more familiar beaches of Miami and Naples; it’s a countryside full of ancient oaks draped in Spanish moss, magnolia trees, southern red cedars and sabal palms growing thick along the roadside. And always nearby is the tannic-hued water of normally tranquil creeks, streams and rivers.
The appeal is obvious to people who love nature, Sexton said.
“The Santa Fe is a beautiful river,” he said. “And you get to one of the springs, and it’s nearly magical. You have crystal clear water bubbling up from the ground in a beautiful natural pool.”
What people need to realize, said Angie Enyedi, an incident meteorologist for the National Weather Service, is that living near a beautiful waterway might be a pleasure most of the time, but nature can wreak havoc here, as Irma did. “Everybody wants riverfront property,” Enyedi said. “People are good living on the river, until the river is washing over your front yard.”
Andersen said he was keeping a close eye on his house as the Santa Fe rose. The lifelong Floridian and nature writer said water is welcome — the springs around this part of the state are drying because the water is being siphoned off to quench Florida’s ever-growing population and robust agriculture industry.
“We need the water, but not all at once like this,” Andersen said. “The beauty of this area is just spectacular. There’s no better place to be. At times like this, it’s tough. But that’s the price we pay for living here.”
Water surrounds the home of Yvonne Trebilcock along the Santa Fe River in LaCrosse, in Alachua County, Fla. After Hurricane Irma, the usually glassy, slow-moving river is menacing.