ST. PETERSBURG — Her daughter lay beside her, so when she woke to a cool sensation her first thought was that the 3-year-old had wet the bed.
"Oh my God, girl!" Selena Johnson shrieked. "You better get up and get to the bathroom."
As she grabbed her daughter, Johnson's eyes moved up toward the ceiling, where the overnight rain seemed to fall unencumbered into her first-floor bedroom. With her daughter in tow, she roused her son in the next room and headed outside, where residents of the 24-unit Lakewood Terrace apartment complex gathered to escape their slouching ceilings. About 40 people stood there, wondering where they would go.
The complex, on the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S and 34th Avenue S, has a history of mold, leaks and code violations, according to the new co-owner, Aurelijus Baltusis, who closed on the property only days before. Months ago the city labeled three units on the second floor "unfit for human habitation." Many of the residents here were drawn not by views of Lake Maggiore, but because the previous owner offered no deposit and cheap rent.
Next door, Johnson's neighbor placed a plastic bin beneath a leak in his ceiling, but as it quickly filled, Keon Dawson abandoned hope and walked outside with the others.
A fire marshal from the St. Petersburg Fire Department arrived around 9 a.m., surveying the apartments, telling residents their ceilings were likely to collapse. The fire department passed out black tarps to cover mattresses and TVs; then the complex's power was shut off for safety.
Mayor Bill Foster even came, catching an earful when he told residents where they would have to stay — on cots in a church.
"Why would the Red Cross tell us there are too many people to relocate anywhere other than a church?" Louise Burr, who runs a nonprofit, asked in a tone one octave short of yelling.
"I don't know," the mayor said.
"Well, that's what we need, Foster," she said beside a crowd of mothers and children.
"If people can relocate to a friend or family's for the weekend … or maybe a motel," Foster said.
"We want a motel," the crowd chimed in.
Foster referred the residents to a city social worker on the scene.
He visited with Johnson and entered her neighbor's home. His shoes sloshed over wet carpet in a room that smelled like a sour dishcloth. Furniture, food, family pictures, work uniforms — all ruined.
Johnson stood outside with the neighbors, who sat on the steps and stared at the concrete.
Several residents questioned aloud and within earshot the mayor's power and vowed to vote for his opponent. After much cajoling, Foster led the social worker into the parking lot.
The social worker returned, flipped through his phone and placed a call to a motel.
"Do you have rooms available?"
The social worker arranged for eight, all on the city's dime.