Wednesday, April 25, 2018
News Roundup

Three months after Tropical Storm Debby, Hernando residents struggle with government loans, insurance

On a recent rainy morning, Jim and Kathy Rousakis stood in their living room and contemplated the destruction wrought by Tropical Storm Debby.

Water had risen to nearly a foot in parts of the quaint ranch home, nestled among 2 1/2 acres of oaks trees near the corner of Sikes Cow Pen and Rochelle roads, east of Brooksville. Since then, the home's interior has been stripped nearly bare, and green mold has begun to sprout. The stench discourages deep breaths.

"It's done," said Jim Rousakis, 69, said of the place the couple has called home for 16 years. "It's actually sickening."

As the homeowners struggle with their insurance company and try to get help from the federal government, the house sits in a sort of purgatory. The lake that formed on their property stubbornly remains.

Three months after Debby, many of the county's storm victims are still working to regain some sense of normalcy. Others are well on their way.

Many, like the Rousakises, are dealing with recalcitrant insurance carriers. Others are using grants or low-interest loans from the federal government to repair their flood-damaged homes and businesses. Some were forced to dip into savings.

Many residents seeking aid ultimately gave up, surrendering to the lengthy, detail-oriented application process, said Hernando emergency management director Cecilia Patella.

"They're already emotionally tired, having dealt with disaster," Patella said, "and now to continue to ask them to do more, they get discouraged and it's too much for them to bear."

Residents aren't the only ones trying to put things back together and move on.

County officials continue to chip away at a lengthy to-do list of public works projects.

Some are as minor as regrading a swale or unclogging a culvert. Others will take months or even years to accomplish.

• • •

Darlyn Delamater considers herself a success story.

By the time Debby's deluges had subsided in late June, water rose to the electrical sockets of Delamater's mobile home in Imperial Estates. About a dozen mobile homes in the park near the northeast corner of U.S. 41 and Powell Road, south of Brooksville, were damaged by flooding. Several, including Delamater's, were declared total losses.

The disabled woman applied for a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant — essentially, free money for low-income people who qualify. Otherwise, she had nowhere to go but back to New York to stay with her children.

Delamater, 61, had started to pack what remained of her belongings into boxes to ship up North when the grant came through. She used the money toward the purchase and repairs of a mobile home on the next block.

"I didn't think it was going to happen," Delamater said last week as she sat on her new porch sewing curtains for her living room. "FEMA did an excellent job."

Delamater received assistance through the agency's Individuals and Households Program. The funds can be used to rent temporary housing, pay for medical bills and repair or replace primary vehicles and residences.

For every happy recipient like Delamater, however, dozens of other applicants were denied.

In Hernando, 1,588 households registered with FEMA before the Sept. 6 deadline with hopes of being considered for assistance, officials said. Of those, 1,392 were referred to the grant program; 592 were approved, and seven are pending. The total grant dollars paid out so far: $1.7 million.

That's an eligibility rate of 43 percent, about on par with the overall rate among the 21 other Florida counties declared disaster areas on July 3, said FEMA spokesman Jim Homstad.

To be eligible for funding to repair or replace a damaged home, the dwelling must be a primary residence and have significant damage to the "essential" living areas, Homstad said.

Applicants can appeal the agency's decision, and should contact FEMA with updated information, such as denied insurance claims, which could affect eligibility, Homstad said. The agency will accept updated information up to 18 months after the date of the disaster declaration.

"We encourage people to stay in touch even after the fact," he said.

Hernando residents also received low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. The loans are the primary source of aid, so disaster victims were urged to first apply for that assistance.

Loans of up to $200,000 were available to help repair or replace homes or businesses not covered by insurance; up to $40,000 was available to repair or replace property such as clothing, furniture and vehicles.

According to the SBA, Hernando residents submitted a total of 176 loan applications. Of those, 52 were approved — 48 for homes, the rest for businesses — for a total of $1.16 million. Ten loan applications were still pending as of last week.

Some families only eligible for loans had to turn them down because they couldn't afford them, Patella said.

"For some, it's like a mortgage on top of a mortgage, so it's not feasible," she said.

In other cases, loan recipients aren't quite sure how to make the math work to rebuild their lives.

Craig and Tammy Robinson and their daughter live on Rochelle Road, next door to Jim and Kathy Rousakis, in a mobile home owned by Tammy's parents. Water rose high enough to saturate the home's floorboards, and now mold is sprouting.

The Robinsons, who, for now, are renting another house, received a $17,000 SBA loan. But Craig Robinson, 52, a shop foreman for a Brooksville auto parts store, is convinced the rigid restrictions on how the money maybe used make repairs impossible.

That could be moot, though. The family is waiting for a contractor to determine whether the damages are more than half of the home's replacement value. If so, the home would have to be elevated several feet to meet current building codes.

That would add thousands of dollars to the cost of the project. It's money the Robinsons do not have, Craig said.

"I'd love to stay here," he said, "but financially I can't do it."

• • •

By the time the regular work week began for Hernando County employees June 25, the effects of Debby's rains were already widespread, and phone lines were lighting up with service requests.

Flooded or washed-out roads, swollen retention ponds spilling into yards, and sinkholes were turning up everywhere.

It didn't take long for county workers to put up all 300 traffic barriers they had to separate residents from danger, requiring officials to order more, said transportation services director Brian Malmberg. The county ran out of sandbags, too.

Malmberg's office logged 217 calls for service that first day and a total of 510 the first week. The volume remained high with 182 calls in the second week, 263 in the third and 274 in the fourth.

The normal weekly call load is about 100.

Teams went out to assess and document each problem. Some fixes were simple.

"There was a culvert clogged, so we cleaned out the culvert. There was a tree in the road; we removed it,'' Malmberg said. "Others were like, 'My house is underwater. Give us some help.' ''

County staffers placed color-coded dots on a huge county map to get the full picture of the damage. After visiting the sites, staffers responded to residents or business owners in writing, explaining what they had found and what was to be done about it.

In some cases, all the county could offer was advice to the landowner to buy flood insurance.

"What we could do, we did,'' Malmberg said.

In their response to residents, officials also tried to put Debby in context. The infrastructure in place was likely not designed for the volume of water dumped by the kind of storm that experts project comes around only every 100 years or so.

The county hopes to recover much of the cost of the cleanup and repairs, as well as money for future projects to keep the same problems from happening again.

The county has so far spent roughly $700,000 to deal with damage and is seeking another $762,000 for future repairs and mitigation. Some of that could come from FEMA and the rest from the Federal Highway Administration.

Those figures do not include more than $200,000 spent by the Hernando County Airport to fix massive sinkholes that opened up on a taxiway. The county is already in the process of repairing erosion damage to the Peck Sink drainage project, southwest of Brooksville.

With major roads out of service such as Spring Hill Drive, Mariner Boulevard and Powell Road, Malmberg said, the county recognizes that some long-term fixes are necessary.

Some of those include raising the roadway and installing culverts and drainage features on Powell near U.S. 41, raising WPA Road near Mondon Hill Road, installing a catch basin and directing water flow to alleviate flooded roads in Dogwood Estates, and various drainage improvements and road work on Lake Lindsey Road, Spring Hill Drive and Harris Hawk Road.

Earlier this year, the county approved updated flood maps that accurately predicted where the drainage problems were going to occur, Malmberg said.

"The biggest lesson is probably that we need to take a serious account of these flood maps because now I think it's been proven that they're accurate."

• • •

The Rousakises found that out the hard way, and are now pinning their hopes on another, less common, FEMA mitigation program.

The couple has flood insurance, but the insurance carrier has said it plans to give them just $69,000 for repairs. That's far less than the estimates they've received, said Kathy Rousakis, 70.

FEMA will give the Rousakises $30,000 to raise their home's elevation approximately 6 to 8 feet so it meets code, but that amount is not nearly enough, Kathy said.

So the couple is working with Patella to win a mitigation grant that would allow the county to use federal funds to pay for the property, demolish the house and perhaps use the site as a drainage area to relieve flooding on Rochelle Road, which is still underwater.

Taking the insurance money and proceeds from the sale could be enough to walk away free and clear and still have some cash to put down on another place, preferably on a hilltop, Kathy said.

"We just want to be able to get on with our lives and put this behind us with our credit still intact."

Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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