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Collapsed berm brings floodwaters closer to Holiday homes

HOLIDAY — A grassy berm was all that separated three homes on Cantrell Street and Eastwood Lane from a retention pond behind a strip mall. It was all they'd ever needed — flooding wasn't common there. But during Tropical Storm Debby's torrential downpour in June, the berm buckled, spewing water into those homes.

Three inches of rain fell in 30 minutes on Monday, an average hard, fast Florida summer afternoon shower. This wouldn't normally cause concern for homeowners near the southeast corner of U.S. 19 and Moog Road. Without the berm, though, the swift thunderstorm caused water to lap at yards and porches, threatening those three homes again.

"We don't know when we'll be able to go back," said Jackie Steel, who owns one of the affected homes. "They haven't had anyone out to tell us when it will be fixed."

She and her husband, Jeff, and their children, Spencer, 11, and Savannah, 8, have stayed at the nearby Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott since June 25, when Debby struck. The grimy floodwaters ruined everything, including the 4-foot-tall dollhouse Savannah bought at Sam's Club with her Christmas money.

Before Debby, Jackie said, their extended families had always stayed with them during storms, since they're not in an evacuation area and have never experienced flooding.

Steel said the insurance company employed by Carlen Realty, which manages the land containing the broken berm and retention pond, is currently paying for her family to stay in the hotel. She doesn't know how long that will last.

"It's been up and down whether they're going to cover things and what they're going to cover," she said.

Jackie's family can't afford to eat out all the time. The family piles into the car and heads back to the house, filled with dishwasher-sized machines sucking out water, every time they need to eat. They prepare their food in their kitchen, which held several inches of water and muck not so long ago.

• • •

Before someone can step in to repair the breach in the berm, insurance companies need to determine what — and who — caused it.

The strip mall property is owned by Ellis and Co. and managed by Carlen Realty. It's anchored by a Sweetbay Supermarket and Pharmacy.

Dennis Rausch, property manager at Carlen, said he met with a drainage engineer Tuesday. They're trying to determine whether the berm collapsed from the top or bottom and how they can fix it, especially since the regular afternoon rains of a Florida summer threaten the homes until the berm is fixed.

"We're kind of under the gun here to get things done in case it rains hard again," he said.

Rausch said he doesn't know when the engineers' analysis of the breach will be completed, though, nor when the homeowners can expect it to be repaired.

He said he didn't know when settlements would be offered to the families. A couple of weeks, maybe.

The problems started when, over a course of nine years beginning in 2002, the company remodeled the buildings on the land, increasing property value by about 25 percent. Because of the change in value, Rausch said, the county mandated that Ellis and Carlen make landscaping upgrades by planting trees on the property.

Rausch said the county required trees to be placed on top of the berm, where they are still growing. The trees were to serve as buffers between the strip mall and the neighborhood. This left the grassy berm at the retention pond as the space to plant the trees, Rausch said.

He said he could not confirm whether this caused the breach.

• • •

What threatens Cynthia Morrison, 53, after evacuating another of the three homes threatened by the breach, goes beyond flooding. She has been torn away from the machines, dietary supplements and room that keep her alive.

Morrison had a liver transplant in 1999 after contracting a virus. Her second liver has weakened recently, she said, but she isn't healthy enough for a second transplant. She uses organic foods and supplemental nutrients, breaking fruits and vegetables down into juices so they're easier for her body to process. Her home has a sauna she uses detoxify her body through her skin, lessening the strain on her liver.

The sauna is gone, flooded by between 18 and 24 inches of water during Debby, Morrison said. Syringes and other tools Morrison uses were swept away during the first flood in June.

She and her husband, David, 59, and 23-year-old son Jonathan, who lives with them, are staying in the Fairfield. She can't prepare her food or nutrients properly there, she said.

The aftermath of the rains has been one struggle after another. She had to find homes for her dog, Angel, and four cats, three of which are staying in their hotel room at the moment.

She spends her average day now at her flooded home, trying to salvage clothes, medicine, pieces of the lives they've stored in their home of 27 years.

She said she came down with a serious fever after Debby, and she's had a slight fever every night since. It's the stress, she said.

She hasn't heard about possible settlements to be offered by Ellis and Carlen.

She doesn't know what the company will pay for while she and her family wait, though they're paying for her hotel stay.

It's only a matter of time before the home is clean, declared safe and ready for them to return.

But how much time is the key, and without her supplements, time, for Morrison, is costly.

Times researcher Caryn Baird, staff writer Lee Logan and staff photographer Doug Clifford contributed to this report. Mary Kenney can be reached at mkenney@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6247.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The collapse of a shopping center berm in Holiday flooded two homes on Cantrell Street and one on Eastwood Lane. An article Wednesday misstated the street names.

Collapsed berm brings floodwaters closer to Holiday homes 07/10/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 4:21pm]
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