Heather Gibson credits the Withlacoochee River for most of her childhood joys. Having grown up just steps from its banks, she remembers sunny afternoons spent biking trails and exploring swimming holes near her parents' home in Talisman Estates.
The neighborhood, which sits on the eastern edge of Hernando County in Ridge Manor, near the Pasco County line, suffered the brunt of the damage brought to the area by Hurricane Irma. According to a county assessment, more than 20 homes there were affected, some deemed unlivable, due to extreme flooding caused by the swollen river as it reached historically high levels in the days after the storm.
As Gibson grew older, she came to imagine children of her own retracing the steps of her adventurous childhood. The dream seemed within reach while she was serving in Iraq as a military police officer in 2012. A two-bedroom house, located near the one where she grew up, came up for sale.
"I bought it with all the cash I had saved up ... It was all that kept me going while I was over there," said Gibson, now 27. "I was going to come home and have a house, a brand new place to start a family."
She and her fiance, Daniel Tanner, moved into the house in 2013. Soon after, their first son, Forrest, was born, and another baby boy, Berkley, came a year later. Then the couple began planning a wedding.
Everything was just as Gibson hoped it'd be, until Irma came and the rising Withlacoochee waters swallowed their home.
"To see it all swept away by water... It's just devastation," she said.
About two weeks after the storm, when the river was at its highest, county workers came by boat to survey the neighborhood, Gibson said. One-by-one, they collected power meters, and when the boat passed by her house, filled waist-high with murky river water, Gibson's dream quickly turned into a nightmare.
"They told us our house was being deemed unlivable," she said, holding back tears. "My kids won't get to swim at the fishing hole, or ride those trails ... That hurts me so bad."
Only when the water had receded and the family was able to get back inside did Gibson understand the level of devastation inside their home. The boys' cribs were overturned and their toys strewn about. A water line reached a few feet up the wall, destroying a jungle-themed mural she and Tanner had painted for their sons.
"The house looked like someone had taken it and shaken it like a cup of dice, then thrown it back out," she said.
The family lost all but five items: the refrigerator, stove, two dressers and a stuffed animal named Chicken, Berkley's favorite toy. Gibson said she washed and soaked it in Lysol so he could have it back, because "it's the little things like that" that seem important now.
Gibson said she has struggled with what to tell her boys, now ages 2 and 3, when they have cried and asked when they can go home. Next week, when she and Tanner are set to close on a new house in Ridge Manor Estates and can move out of her in-laws' converted garage, she will be thankful to have an answer.
"It will never be the same," she said, "but we had to do something."
Although the house has been condemned, the couple still owns it. Gibson says the county hasn't told them what the next step is, or who will be responsible for knocking it down, but they have no intention of selling the property.
"I don't know what will happen, but we definitely don't want to get rid of it," she said. "If anything, we'll just spend our weekends there and try to make up for everything."
Contact Megan Reeves at email@example.com. Follow @mareevs.