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Clearwater apartment residents lack power after October fire

A resident at Sunset Grove Villas found a bank of electric meters outside her bedroom wall sparking and smoking. 

JIM DAMASKE | Times

A resident at Sunset Grove Villas found a bank of electric meters outside her bedroom wall sparking and smoking. 

CLEARWATER — One Sunday morning last month, Virginia Wistner was cooking pancakes for her children and grandson when she heard what sounded like firecrackers.

Outside her apartment, she found a bank of electric meters outside her bedroom wall sparking and smoking. She called the fire department and told her children and her dogs, Lucky and Bojangles, to run outside.

As crews turned off the electricity, the fire burned through her bedroom wall, destroyed the meters and melted wiring, leaving a frame of blackened metal and a hole in her bedroom wall. Firefighters moved quickly; no one was injured, and the apartment was mostly saved.

This kind of story typically ends here: The blaze is doused, insurers are called, the home is repaired and the lights flicker back on.

Not so for Wistner and her neighbors. The landlord responsible for repairs has yet to spring into action, delaying the return of electricity to four units at Sunset Grove Villas, a complex off Sunset Point Road east of Hercules Avenue. Now, 13 days after the fire, they remain in the dark, with no power, no support and little idea of what comes next.

The problem, they say, lies with owner Gordon Brown, whom Wistner, 50, has rented from for nearly nine years. When told of the fire, Brown did not offer to help, she said, asking instead that her renters' insurance pay for the damage.

Brown did not return messages this week, but his son, Bobby Brown, said they had hired an electrician and a general contractor, who would show up Monday to begin assessing repairs.

Though he admitted they "had dropped the ball, kind of," Brown attributed much of the blame to Citizens Insurance, Progress Energy and city engineers, whom he said had not offered temporary solutions or had worsened the delays.

"It just takes time to do stuff," Brown said. "You know nothing gets done overnight."

Florida law gives tenants some protection — including withholding rent while a rental unit is "uninhabitable" — from landlords who are slow to act. But that is little consolation to Wistner or her neighbors, who say Brown told them a contractor wouldn't begin repairs for two weeks, potentially drawing out their ordeal without electricity for nearly a month.

For weeks now, Wistner has taken cold showers, spent her evenings in darkness and eaten primarily fast food, her refrigerator standing open. Her master bedroom, where wind whistles through the pierced wall, is empty save for a few family pictures; she sleeps in a makeshift bedroom in her small backyard lanai.

However, what's more frustrating than her darkened home, she said, is her sense of helplessness. Wistner, who works for a community association management company, said she has planned these kinds of repairs for years. But as long as the landlord lags, she said, she and the other renters have little defense.

"I've got to have a direction, some light at the end of the tunnel," Wistner said. "Not getting one messes with your whole psyche. You break."

A few doors down from Wistner, neighbor Sandi Turja, 62, whose meter was also torched, has been similarly distressed. She relies on candles and an oil lamp at night, and is unable to turn the radio on.

"I'm just so doggone flippin' messed up in the head with all this. Can't sleep," she said. "Honestly, I feel like I'm homeless."

Turja and Wistner have gotten by with help from friends and neighbors, including one who stretched a long extension cord to power Wistner's computer. She spent three nights at a Howard Johnson motel, but worried about the compounding cost.

A hotel room, after all, is not a home. Before Halloween, Wistner decorated her doorstep with a graveyard of skeletons and glow-in-the-dark ghosts, in keeping with her yearly tradition. When the holiday came, she still had no power. Her light-up spider sat darkened, her blow-up pumpkin deflated. The children passed her by.

"There were no kids to make me happy," she said, "though my house would be great for a seance."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Clearwater apartment residents lack power after October fire 11/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 4, 2011 8:06pm]
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