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 northern 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, slow-moving river is now menacing. Hurricane Irma changed the Santa Fe’s personality almost overnight, making it a dangerous conduit for floodwaters. The raging waters here northwest of Gainesville have 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 southwestern 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 northern Florida, widespread rains soaked an already oversaturated part of Florida and southern Georgia. The rains flooded such bodies of water as 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 in the entire 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. Anticipating the closure, the Florida Department of Transportation told evacuees returning from the north to divert to Interstate 95, creating traffic jams to the east.
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 knocked on more than 200 doors to tell residents to evacuate, an unusual move in northern Florida.
“A lot of these folks have been here a long time, but all of them took this seriously,” Sexton said.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, with help from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, sent 25 boats along the Santa Fe on Thursday, looking for “paddling looters.”
It was a reunion of sorts for Florida wildlife officer Andy Krause and Louisiana wildlife officer Davis Madere — they both were on rescue teams in Texas a few weeks ago after Hurricane Harvey flooded a wide swath of that state.
“I think this has become the new normal,” Madere said. “Hurricane Katrina was surreal, but now we’re seeing it more and more.”
The cascading nature of the watersheds in north Florida has resulted in several floods in small towns such as High Springs (population 6,000), as well as Jacksonville, a city of 900,000. More than 342 people had to be rescued from their homes in nearby Clay County. And this was all after Hurricane Irma had passed. Days after the storm 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. The area between Gainesville and Jacksonville is a countryside full of ancient oak trees draped in Spanish moss, magnolia trees lining streets, southern red cedars and sabal palms growing thick along the roadside. And always nearby, whether under a bridge or at the end of a dock, is the tannic-hued water of normally tranquil creeks and 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. A lot of people move here to have their own chunk of paradise.”
What they 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 turn around and wreak havoc here, as Irma did.
“It’s the urban development of these naturally watery places. Everybody wants riverfront property,” Enyedi said. “But any time you get a close interaction with the Mother Nature and human interface, with a natural disaster like this, you might change your mind. 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 Florida 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.
He’s facing the possibility of a flooded house with composure.
“The beauty of this area is just spectacular,” Andersen said. “There’s no better place to be. At times like this, it’s tough. But that’s the price we pay for living here.”