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Far from coasts, flooding from Hurricane Ian devastates inland communities

‘There was no place to put the water. There is still no place to put the water,’ said the emergency manager of Seminole County, which saw historic floods

Sheriffs survey flooding from the Peace River near the Peace River Campground in Arcadia, Fla., on Monday. (Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article misspelled Kathy Kiely’s last name in one instance. It is Kiely, not Keily. The article has been corrected.

WINTER SPRINGS, Fla. — The tidy lawns and palm tree-lined streets of Hacienda Village lie more than 150 miles inland from where Hurricane Ian came barreling ashore near Fort Myers. But on Monday, the neighborhood was lined with sopping sofas and soaked dressers, ruined appliances, sodden rugs and discarded mattresses.

Family photo albums sat in the midday sun, in hopes that some memories could be salvaged, while some individual snapshots blew through the streets like tumbleweeds.

In this neighborhood, a 20-minute drive north from Orlando, as in numerous other inland communities throughout Florida, Ian and its remnants dumped biblical amounts of rain. The storm caused ponds to swell far beyond their banks and creeks to become rushing rivers. It overwhelmed storm-water and sewage systems, and brought unprecedented flooding to places far from the most visceral scenes of destruction along the coastline.

Flooding from the Peace River in Arcadia, Fla., has shut down Highway 72 in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. (Video: Thomas Simonetti/The Washington Post)

“Right now, I want to run. I want to turn my back and just run as far away as I can,” said Rose Grieber, 79, as she surveyed the already mildewing interior of the home she shares on La Vista Drive with her 82-year-old husband, Ron.

The couple had recently poured tens of thousands of dollars in renovations into the house they have owned since 2008, installing new floors and cabinets, new counters and bathroom fixtures. But they watched helplessly over the weekend as floodwaters caused by Ian poured through their front door and inundated nearly everything in sight.

Photos: Ian leaves a path of destruction

“I know on the news, people will show Fort Myers Beach — really terrible, catastrophic — and that’s obviously significant, but this storm had really broad impacts across the state of Florida,” Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) told reporters Monday after he toured flood damage in North Port, which lies inland and north of where Ian came ashore.

“Everyone who lives here will say this is the worst they have ever seen here, by far. Not even close,” DeSantis said.

There as elsewhere, DeSantis said, he saw homes that had been “totally cut off from the world” because of the floodwaters. Some residents still had to canoe to and from their houses. Some roads remained impassable days after Ian had moved on.

“You can hide from the wind. We build structures now in Florida that will withstand wind,” he said, “But when you have this much water, it’s just paralyzing.”

Video: Boats rescue residents in North Port, Fla., after Ian

A nearly three-hour drive to the northeast, in Seminole County, Alan Harris has been grappling with the paralyzing effect of that flooding.

“It’s definitely record-breaking. I’ve been in the community over 22 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Harris, emergency manager for the county, which lies north of Orlando and is home to nearly half a million people.

“When you look at the historical records, there is no history for this,” Harris said of what had unfolded in recent days. “Homes that have never flooded before are flooded. Retention ponds became lakes, golf courses became lakes, and apartment and condo complexes that have never flooded became lakes.”

In addition, Harris said, storm-water systems could not keep up with the deluge, which dropped in excess of a foot of water in some parts of the county — onto ground already saturated by recent rainfall. That downpour, coupled with rising rivers, washed away roads and made bridges impassable — at least 6 bridges remain closed indefinitely until they can be repaired, he said.

All told, nearly 6,000 homes in the county have been damaged, with some homes mired in water up to the owners’ shoulders. Hundreds of residents had to be rescued, many of them with help from the National Guard.

“There was no place to put the water. There is still no place to put the water,” Harris said Monday afternoon. “I was here in 2008 when we broke records for flooding, but this has far surpassed that.”

Across inland Florida, from suburban neighborhoods to retirement communities to rural outposts, similar stories have played out.

Florida’s Division of Emergency Management said Monday that officials were continuing to respond to the impacts of “significant flooding” along the Peace River in DeSoto and Hardee counties. It was there where search-and-rescue crews turned after Ian to help residents trapped in their homes, and where swelling waters collapsed a bridge.

Not far away, flooding from the Myakka River prompted the temporary closure of Interstate 75 — one of Florida’s most critical highways — in both directions. DeSantis referenced the impacts of such closures on Sunday during a visit to the inland farming community of Arcadia, which was hit hard by flooding.

“This is such a big storm that brought so much water, that you’re having basically what’s been a 500-year flood event here in DeSoto County and some of the neighboring counties,” the governor said. He added that in addition to damaging homes, “it’s interrupting transport. It’s interrupting commerce, because some of these roads still aren’t passable.”

Elsewhere, a combination of power outages to lift stations and overburdened storm-water and wastewater systems are making cleanup in the aftermath of Ian particularly nasty.

Officials in central Florida warned residents to avoid standing water and the myriad lakes in the area because of potential fecal contamination. Cars attempted to drive around small geysers of sewage water that broke through the asphalt.

The city of Orlando on Monday asked residents and businesses to refrain from flushing toilets, doing laundry, washing dishes and taking showers as much as possible while workers made emergency repairs to the city’s sewer system, after a break in a main caused “an overflow of sewage in the surrounding lakes and streets.”

“There are literally turds and tampons in the street in front of my house,” Kathy Kiely of Winter Park texted a friend group on Friday.

By Monday, much to her relief, Kiely’s home, driveway and garage had been power washed multiple times thanks to the help of her siblings, who converged to help clean up.

Florida might be known for its beautiful beaches, but the state also has thousands of miles of rivers, streams and canals that crisscross inland communities.

“Those systems can quickly be overwhelmed by intense rainfall events,” said Tom Frazer, dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida. “We have a large part of the state which is not on the coast and will continue to be subject to flood threats moving forward.”

Those threats are only growing, he said, in part because of climate change. Scientists have detailed how warming oceans can fuel more intense storms, and how warmer air holds more moisture, creating conditions for monumental rainfall.

Study finds that climate change added 10% to Ian's rainfall

“That’s what we are seeing with these large hurricanes and tropical storm events that are depositing large amounts of rain on the land,” said Frazer, who also serves as executive director of the Florida Flood Hub, a state-backed research consortium aimed at helping communities better forecast, mitigate and adapt to flood risks.

Frazer said that as hundreds of new residents move to Florida each day, the feverish growth also results in shifts to land-use patterns, making it even more important for communities to understand changing flood threats.

“Every day we are changing the way water flows, and the landscape,” he said, and public officials must think more proactively about how to cope with the increasing stresses on infrastructure.

“We’ve designed water conveyance systems based on historical data rather than future problems,” Frazer said. “We’ve engineered them for events that have occurred historically, but the world is going to be different moving forward.”

He credits Florida for investing significant funds into resilience efforts, including money for counties and cities to better understand their vulnerabilities, so that they can better decide where to make future investments.

“Every county needs to assess the threat posed by flooding,” Frazer said, because flooding will continue to be a serious risk even far from the coast. “We know that [storms] are becoming more intense and moving more slowly and depositing more rainfall.”

Maps show how millions of people have moved into Hurricane Ian’s path

Long after Ian’s departure, worries of rising water linger, even far from the ocean.

The St. Johns River continued to rise Tuesday along much of its path through Central Florida, including the town of Deland, where the river was already past flood stage.

In the small community of Astor, nearly an hour’s drive inland from Daytona Beach, Amber Harper watched the river keep rising in the days after the storm, eventually breaching sandbags piled at her door and filling the living room with nearly a foot of water. The house, for now, is uninhabitable.

“We will get it fixed,” she said Tuesday, “and back to normal in time.”

Back at the Hacienda Village community in Winter Springs, residents also continued to take stock of the damage, and of the recovery that lay ahead.

Gary and Lillian Ritter, relative newcomers to the neighborhood, evacuated at the insistence of their daughter. They returned to find several inches of water in the house and about 18 inches in their sunroom.

“It broke our hearts,” Lillian said. “But people had it worse than me.”

Nearby, Rose Grieber stood in a back bedroom, where her family had already ripped out the flooring and had fans running, attempting to dry all that had been soaked.

“Believe it or not, it was beautiful,” she said, standing on the plywood subfloor.

She wondered aloud how to begin to salvage what remained, and what it would take to start again.

“Right now,” she said, “it’s just devastating.”

Liston reported from Winter Springs. Lori Rozsa contributed from Astor, Fla.

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