It's hard to believe 2012 is almost here. Wait. One. Minute. Before the bubbly bubbles or the ball drops, reflect with us as we recall some of the most interesting stories the South Shore and Brandon Times covered in 2011. In the following short stories, we hope you'll find the answer to the proverbial end-of-the-year question: Whatever happened to … ?
The neighborhood rocked by the tornado
PROGRESS VILLAGE — As Progress Village recovers from the damages caused by tornados and severe storms on March 31, many say the rebuilding has exceeded simply restoring the neighborhood.
Now, they say, it looks better than ever.
"I take the tornado as a blessing in disguise," said Linda Washington, president of the Progress Village Civic Council. "It seems like the whole community has a brightness to it."
She estimated the tornados affected about a tenth of the 800 homes in the neighborhood, which was considered by local officials to be one of the hardest-hit areas in Hillsborough County.
For some residents, Washington said revitalization has been slow. Construction paperwork and lengthy procedures have left a few homeowners with leaky roofs still overhead.
Washington said she hopes the neighborhood will fully recover by mid 2012.
The county granted an extra $108,000 to Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay after the storms to expand the nonprofit's Progress Village rehabilitation plans from 10 houses to 43. All but eight have been completed, according to the organization's executive director, Jose Garcia.
The county's affordable housing services handles larger renovations, and code enforcement continues to clean up debris and broken trees in the 50-year-old community.
County Commissioner Les Miller, whose district includes Progress Village, raised about $26,000 to assist uninsured homeowners or those with high deductibles to pay for repairs.
"People say neighborhoods aren't close anymore," he said. "Well, that's not true. People in Progress Village cared about each other, and they were there for each other."
Stephanie Wang, Times staff writer
In 2011, the Ruskin Family Drive-In started a crusade to raise $150,000. The drive-in, opened in 1952, needs it to keep operating.
Movie companies are making the transition from film to digital and to stay alive, the drive-in has to change, too.
That means going high-tech. Owners Ted and Karen Freiwald were told they'd need a digital projector by 2013.
The Freiwalds vowed to stay open. They sold T-shirts and held a car show in November.
"People older than me were out here struggling to keep this drive-in open," Ted Freiwald said. "They probably haven't even been here in years but they remember it from their youth."
So far, the couple have raised only $6,600. And recently, they learned their deadline had moved up. They now only have until March to get the money in order.
But Ted Freiwald hasn't lost hope.
"We're just going to have to borrow it," he said.
Shelley Rosseter, Times staff writer
PLANT CITY — While 2011 came nowhere near the sinkhole crisis of the year before, two cases reminded us we're not immune, and steps were taken to help prevent sinkholes in the future.
Remember the woman who fell in a sinkhole in March? Carla Chapman of Plant City is doing fine, but her back yard still suffers. The hole, the second in her yard and the second into which she has fallen, remains open. And now neighbors in the Trapnell Ridge subdivision fear they could be next. Residents have teamed up to look into the problem.
At the end of 2010, a sinkhole opened at the Southeast County Landfill, and county officials spent 2011 trying to fix it. Officials are conducting an investigation to determine the extent of the sinkhole and how repairs should be made. In the meantime, groundwater is being monitored for any signs of pollution.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, took steps to reduce the amount of sinkholes and dry wells in the future by enacting a new list of water-use rules for Dover and Plant City in June.
The rules include creating a new process for allocating dry well complaints, declaring a 256-square-mile water-use caution area and establishing a minimum aquifer level. The rules also establish a minimum aquifer level protection zone and require automatic meter-reading devices.
Shelley Rossetter, Times staff writer
The earthquake survivor
LITHIA — Without an extension on the tourist visa that first brought her to the United States, Ambre Pierre Louis was ready to go home.
It had been more than a year since her house in Haiti toppled on her and her mother, rocked by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in January 2010. Pierre Louis, 20, came to her cousin's house in Lithia to finish school while her country rebuilt.
But as she shopped for a plane ticket and a suitcase in May this year, the U.S. government gave Haitian earthquake survivors another year to stay through a temporary protected status.
Still, remaining at her cousin's house proved almost more difficult.
Pierre Louis graduated from Bloomingdale High School but deferred her dreams of studying nursing at Hillsborough Community College when she couldn't afford the out-of-state tuition.
Now a student at Brewster Technical School, Pierre Louis says she feels frustrated at her progress. Learning English takes time out of science lessons.
She still hasn't seen her mother since she left Haiti. Though her mother has found a rental house and started working again, she won't visit Pierre Louis in Florida. That money has to be saved for college.
"I will not disappoint her," Pierre Louis said. "I will still be trying."
Stephanie Wang, Times staff writer
The women's prison
RIVERVIEW — In March, news came from the Florida Department of Corrections that the state's only faith-based women's prison would close as a result of budget cuts. Even at capacity, prison officials said, the institution was cost prohibitive.
Then a group of retirees who volunteer at the Hillsborough Correctional Institution took a drive to Tallahassee and persuaded officials to keep the prison open. In May, the state decided Hillsborough would remain in operation for at least another year and by fall, more than 150 women attended a new volunteer orientation prepared to keep the prison thriving in 2012.
In November, volunteers logged 2,297 hours. Going into the new year, the women say they hope to coordinate programs such as a vegetable garden outside the prison gates.
"Our recidivism rate continues to go down as more programs for transition and educational needs are expanding," said Nancy Williams, volunteer.
For the holidays, Hillsborough volunteers distributed 300 gift bags to inmates, filled with $7,000 worth of items donated by the community. Inmates presented a Christmas program written, produced and directed in-house and the prison's carpentry class donated about 100 toys to Hope Children's Home. At a special event, County Commissioner Al Higginbotham visited the prison chapel to share his story of overcoming adversity.
The future of the prison beyond summer 2012 remains in the hands of officials, Williams said. Still, she is hopeful this time it looks bright.
Sarah Whitman, Times staff writer