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

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY LORI ROZSA

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.”

SCOTT CLAUSE/LAFAYETTE, LA., DAILY AD­VER­TISER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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