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Gun-toting folks patrol as a river runs over

Some residents of Arrowhead refuse to abandon their property and mount a defense against unseen threats. The Sheriff's Office says fears of burglars are largely unfounded.

JUSTIN GEORGE
Published October 11, 2004

HERNANDO - Water continues to close in on homes in the Arrowhead neighborhood like a noose. It has already swallowed several.

"Dead End" signs take on new meanings on roads where water chokes engines and traps drivers. Alligators and water moccasins have become unwanted neighbors. Dead fish float in a brown soup that overpowers the nostrils with sulfureous and sewage smells.

"Everything imaginable is going on," said Mark Haggard, a Citrus County Sheriff's Office Community Affairs volunteer, who guards a neighborhood checkpoint that limits access to residents and emergency workers.

Stress builds among the stubborn who refuse to abandon their watery homes. As other Citrus County residents count up cloudless days since Hurricane Jeanne, people who live on the Withlacoochee River watch it continue to rise and fill their lives with misery.

Stories of burglaries abound. Many of the independent-minded people who live in Arrowhead have resorted to taking matters into their own hands.

They carry guns and patrol the neighborhood looking for looters despite the close watch of the area by the Sheriff's Office and the closure of the river and roads to boat and car traffic.

"We're trying to maintain control," Haggard said. He has noticed some of the gun-toting residents who are just a trigger pull away from being vigilantes. "This is all these people got."

With many homes in the neighborhood evacuated and abandoned, deputies cannot patrol all of the mostly rutted and - now flooded - dirt roads that carve through the community's thick forest, which hides most Arrowhead homes.

"There's only so much the Sheriff's Office can do," said Sonny Groves, who lives on River Road. "We have to protect our own."

He keeps a 9mm strapped to his waist at all times and is one of the residents who watches out for others when he drives through the neighborhood. Looters are the last thing flood-weary residents should have to worry about, Groves said, when their belongings are being drowned by a relentless flood.

One family, he said, built a berm to protect their home before the waters rose and then pumped water out. Then the family lost power, a generator quit and they were left with little but a sinking feeling as water flooded their home.

"They lost the fight and that's just sad," Groves said.

The water keeps rising. The Withlacoochee River at Holder measured 11.14 feet Friday - more than 3 feet above the flood stage, according to the National Weather Service. And the water will continue to rise, expected now to crest at 11.3 feet by mid October, the latest forecast predicts.

Still, some homeowners won't budge. R.D. Dorman, for instance, canoes into his home, which he guards with his gun and pit bullterrier when he's not patrolling the neighborhood keeping an eye out for gawkers - and telling them to get on their way.

He watches his neighbor James Rumble's Forest Trail mobile home and 9 acres, which looters struck. While Rumble was away, Rumble said, someone stole a new well pump off his property. A neighbor called him not long ago and said a man was pulling Rumble's porch apart, running off with the wood.

When confronted, the man said someone up the road told him to take it.

"All the problems people have down here and then to have people vandalize your stuff," said Rumble as he loaded his pickup with the remaining wood for safekeeping, "it just adds to the misery level here."

Some men have sent their families to relatives' or rental homes while they remain in Arrowhead on guard.

Many worry about ransacking airboaters, while others say they turn over in bed at the sounds of boat engines.

For the most part, their fears are unfounded. Burglars are not stealing into the community, sheriff's spokeswoman Gail Tierney said, and deputies are not aware of any reports of looting or burglaries.

But if people feel more secure protecting their own homes armed, that is their constitutional right.

"There's nothing unlawful about that," Tierney said. "Certainly, we'd want to know if somebody was being threatened by somebody, but there's nothing illegal about protecting your own property with a firearm."

Linda Sauve, who has lived in the area since 1986, sleeps with her .38-caliber Star handgun nearby. After Frances, she said, someone took a crowbar and broke the latch of her garage door. After Jeanne, it happened again.

Recently, she said, she saw teens on bicycles and put out a warning in case they or their friends were up to no good.

"I warned them: "Come back here, and you'll meet a .44.'

"I may not have much here, but I worked hard for it and it's mine."

Even before the floodwaters rose, residents said, Arrowhead was the type of community where an abundance of gun owners could be found. Its rural setting attracts hunters and those who value their privacy and property rights.

The community is a mix of rundown mobile homes, squatty small homes and a dash of upscale riverfront homes and cabins built by brave gamblers who aren't afraid of the river's overflowing reputation.

"If we want to have three cars sitting in the driveway," Sauve said, "we have them."

They also thumb their nose at government's ability to protect them.

A sarcastic message meant for the Southwest Florida Water Management District is spray-painted on a board on River Road:

"Swiftmud thanks."

Many blame Swiftmud for their predicament because the agency released water through a flood control structure on the Hernando Pool of the Tsala Apopka Lake chain all at once late last month to protect lakefront homes south of Arrowhead.

The water goes directly into the north-flowing Withlacoochee, bursting after Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne filled the Green Swamp in Polk County, where the river originates.

"Everything that happens down there," Sauve said, "ends up here."

Because the river floods nearly every year, said resident Stan Leland, being an Arrowhead resident requires an almost frontierlike resiliency.

"You have to. You can't survive out here if you're not self-sufficient. The average person won't slog through the water with water moccasins and diamondbacks (rattlers)," he said.

Instead of a gun, he owns a 120-pound jet black Great Dane. But he said he knows that the community's common "Beware of Dog" signs rival, if not complement, the arms inside.

"Let's put it this way: There's a lot of hunters in this state," Leland said. "A lot of good ol' boys."

And with their neighborhood under attack by a river that has made many feel powerless, some say, firearms allow residents to feel in control of something.

"Most everyone's carrying guns," said gun owner Frank DeLay, who visits his uninhabitable flooded home nearly every day. "That's kind of legal out here now."

-- Justin George can be reached at 352 860-7309 or jgeorge@sptimes.com

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