On the river, flooding is a matter of when, not if

Jane Blais, back kayak, owner of River Rise Resort, and her friend Jeanne McDonald, paddle towards a group of rental homes on the property that is surrounded in the flood waters from the Santa Fe River, which covered much of the 50 acres at the River Rise Resort, in High Springs on Sunday.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 10:29 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 10:29 p.m.

Jane Blais, owner of the 50-acre River Rise Resort in High Springs, said Sunday she knew as the rain fell in torrents last week that things would be bad.

“Normally in a flood, water rises an inch an hour,” she said. “It was rising a foot an hour.”

A week after Tropical Storm Debby hit north Florida, flooding areas from Live Oak to Clay County, her home is still accessible only by canoe. Only the roof of her 10-foot gazebo is visible, and the Santa Fe River reaches the second landing of a stairway to her stilt home, which is 15 feet above the ground.

Blais has owned the resort since 2002. When it became apparent that the river was rising fast, she scrambled to warn residents. She moved a neighbor's motorcycle to what she thought then was high ground — it wasn't — and now it's a ruined landmark in the middle of a lake.

“In the future,'' she said, “we really need some flood planning.”

About 17 residences at the resort, just off U.S. 441, had to be evacuated. The water, according to the National Weather Service, is slowly going down, but most of the residents still have not returned.

The week ahead should bring a slow lowering of the river level, and this week in Gainesville daytime temperatures should hover around the 90s. July 4 is looking especially sunny, with only some possible thunderstorms over the weekend.

Blais, however, has much to do before she can think about any celebration.

Her feet are bandaged and blistered from canoeing barefoot on her property the past few days. Her gray hair is frazzled, but her friend Jeanne McDonald is there to help.

On Sunday afternoon, they set their canoe down behind the Santa Fe Bar off of 441. Normally, there's a dirt road on the side of the bar into the resort, but today it's all glassy water.

On Saturday, spectators and sightseers swarmed the area in canoes and kayaks to look around. “It was like the Daytona 500,” Blais said. But police now patrol, so it's much calmer.

She paddles down what used to be be an access road, past a shed's roof. There's a dead deer in the brush to the right. Blais said she heard it calling out last night, but she couldn't get to it.

She turns her canoe and passes underneath two duplexes. It's dark under the houses and pieces of wood and debris float by. The water is about 6 feet deep.

Next, the motorcycle stands sentry in a spot where a pond should be. To the left, a few one-story houses look like they're on an island.

Blais said the water came so fast that she expects dead fish to start popping up any day now. In fact, she said, normally in a flood the trees would look like they were moving, from the amount of bugs. There were no bugs.

“People think a flood is cleansing,” she said. “It's the opposite of that. It destroys, destroys, destroys.”

A neighbor in a canoe asks if someone wants to buy the motorcycle. “It's real cheap now,” he said.

A power line hangs low on River Bend Way, almost touching the water, near Blais' house where the gazebo is. Up the way, her seven horses neigh near the barn. The place where the pen was is now home to a curved water oak that fell in an arch over water. She moved them all to higher ground near a tall barn. One of her horses, a Florida Cracker Horse named Annie, was wet from rolling in a puddle.

Around the bend a man sat on his stairs. The whole lower half of his house was underwater.

“I didn't get my truck and car out in time,” John Thomas said. “It really surprised me.” He was cooking spaghetti on a grill powered by a generator. He's lived there 26 years, he said, and it's flooded before, but never this bad.

“When you live on the river, it's not a matter of if,” he said, “it's a matter of when.”

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