NEW PORT RICHEY
Kathy Walden remembers the panicked call from her husband as Tropical Storm Debby bore down on Pasco County a year ago this week. The rain poured and the Anclote River behind their home had burst its banks.
"You need to come home," he told her. "I can't stop the water."
Walden had to wade her way home on Elfers Parkway while 16 inches of rain came down. She and her husband, John, stayed up all night stuffing blankets underneath doors and lifting what they could out of harm's way.
Morning light found them shin-deep in river water, their furniture floating and knocking around the house.
More than 7,000 homes and businesses had to evacuate because of Tropical Storm Debby. Of those, 20 Pasco families were not able to return to their homes, said Annette Doying, the county's director of emergency management.
The Waldens were one of them.
They haven't moved back in yet.
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Kathy and John evacuated for three days with their clothes, some files, a bed and their pets while the storm surge emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. A putrid, wet-rot smell greeted them on their return. They left nearly all of their possessions on the street for the garbage trucks.
Kathy figured they would be back home by August at the latest. But since then, it's been an endless maze of permitting and insurance issues that have led them to a tiny apartment in New Port Richey where they have to live for $960 a month — plus utilities, plus the mortgage on the house.
A flood insurance agent sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized a payment of $63,000 in the first weeks after the storm, but it would be until December before the Waldens saw the money. Kathy Walden said she isn't sure why her bank, Wells Fargo, took so long to put the money through.
They contracted with Bay Area Disaster Kleenup International, which yanked out most of the drywall in the house but backed out midway through the job, she said. In a letter to her bank, DKI said it would be too difficult to get a new building permit on the home. In addition, Pasco County Central Permitting placed a cap on how much the Waldens could spend on renovations because of the home's age.
So they worked out a new plan: They would buy all their own building materials using a $10,000 installment from the bank — the drywall, nails, insulation and flooring — but it was a Catch-22 of sorts because it left them no money for a contractor.
"And all these things add up to a damn year," Kathy said in an interview this week. "It was slow. Just slow. You don't learn these things until you go through it and do it."
The eddy of buying building materials, providing receipts and other paperwork for the permit brought them the rest of the way around the calendar. The permit came through three weeks ago.
They're now living in a nearby apartment with Kathy's 91-year-old mother. Kathy works in customer service at Widell Industries, a mechanical parts manufacturer. John used to work two or three odd jobs a week. But with money tight now, he's taken a job roofing in the hot Florida sun Monday through Friday.
On weekends, they put together the pieces of their lives before the storm.
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The Waldens moved into the cinder-block house 13 years ago, when their sons were 4 and 15. They had a small walkway to the bank of the Anclote, a moss-hung strip of wilderness where they would put in canoes and see manatees and otters. Kathy used to garden here and make driftwood art, back when there was love in this home instead of mold.
The inside now is bare with naked beams in most places instead of walls, the floor ground down to concrete. Kathy's voice echoes in the living room as she talks about the work left to be done. The walls, cabinets and floors have to be in before the bank will give them another installment from the escrow account. She isn't sure how long that will take.
The Waldens plan to sell the home eventually, but with the area's recent classification as a floodway who would buy this fool's paradise?
On Monday morning, the anniversary of the storm, she stopped by the house where a sink and toilets lay in the back yard, near the river, waiting to be put back in the house. A trailer full of lawn ornaments and her driftwood art sits in the driveway for her to pressure-wash. They keep the lawn mowed so the place looks lived-in.
In front of the garage filled with the building materials set to go into the home, Kathy said she misses her life before. She gently touched a dragonfly orchid while she remembered when gardening was her reason for working in the yard. She said she tries to take moments now and again to see things bloom.
Contact Alex Orlando at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.