Thursday, January 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Floodwaters came fast, recovery from Debby drags on

NEW PORT RICHEY — Jenny Cramton Barker has new tile flooring in her living room. The rest of the floor is still dusty cement. A few weeks ago, the floor was soggy, warped linoleum.

Barker, 34, doesn't live in a flood zone. She doesn't have flood insurance. Hers was the only house on Whitetail Lane to flood during Tropical Storm Debby.

Barker and her four children moved into the house in late December. The June flooding came during the hardest month for Barker: four years and two days after the death of her husband.

"You never know," said Barker's mother, Julie Cramton. "You never know how people feel or hurt, in Katrina and all that, until you experience it.

"I thought we had enough grief, with her husband's death," she went on more quietly. "I guess not."

• • •

President Barack Obama declared Pasco County a disaster zone during the first week of July, launching Barker's journey through federal paperwork and assessments. She applied for any help the Federal Emergency Management Agency could offer.

A FEMA inspector looked at the house the first week of July. She wrote Barker a check that would fully cover repairs, with careful budgeting.

"I can't say enough about FEMA's help," Cramton said. "We wanted to help. We just couldn't do it all."

Others reached out to Barker and her family. Barker is a member of Swing Gang, a Tampa swing dancing group. The dancers posted photos of Barker's house on Facebook and asked for donations. Members have ventured to the house several times to repaint the exterior and have raised more than $2,000 for the family, which they used to lay the new tile.

It seemed as though she wouldn't need to ask for any more help. But as Barker picked through her home a couple weeks after the storm, she found black mold growing in the floor cabinets in her kitchen, up the walls of the two bathrooms and in the bottom of her closet.

She would need to ask for help again.

• • •

On Monday, Barker turned to the Disaster Relief Center at the Trouble Creek Square Shopping Center on Grand Boulevard.

The center, hastily erected in an empty storefront in the strip mall, wasn't crowded. People rarely waited more than 10 minutes for assistance.

Barker's daughter and Cramton went with her. They sat with a FEMA worker as soon as they walked in.

Cramton listened while her daughter explained that she's already received money for repairs, but she found black mold and can't pay to have it cleaned out. She wiped at her eyes as she spoke.

Barker was directed to an agent with the U.S. Small Business Administration, FEMA's partner. Barker explained her problem and applied for a loan. She was denied.

Barker was told she may have more luck applying for federal grants because her loan application was denied.

At this point, all they can do is what they've been doing since late June — wait.

• • •

Barker is one of many anticipating what will happen next as they wade through applications for assistance. As of Friday, 9,876 people in 22 Florida counties had contacted FEMA for aid in the wake of Tropical Storm Debby, said FEMA spokeswoman Renee Bafalis. About $13.9 million has been approved for individual assistance.

The SBA is offering loans to individuals for whom federal grants aren't enough. Bafalis said these loans carry smaller interest rates than private small business loans. She said individual loans have a 1.9 percent interest rate, nonprofit loans are 3 percent and businesses get 4 percent.

The loans require approval, though, just like private loans. Some, like Barker, are denied.

The chaos started June 24, with rain, a flood and a shovel.

Barker stood in Debby's curtain of rain, a shovel in one slick hand. Her four children were inside the house, watching. Barker drove the shovel into the slimy ground, slipping as she tried to move the wet mud. She needed to dig trenches, and quickly.

She called her mother, standing in her kitchen as it filled with water. The linoleum under her feet, which she'd recently bought from Home Depot and hadn't paid off yet, soaked up the dirty floodwater, completely ruined.

It's hard to say what raced through her thoughts that day. Worry, as her children climbed on furniture to stay dry. Panic, as she stood outside trying to dig trenches. Sorrow, as she watched her home absorb the grime.

The water reached 5 inches high in the house, but it was up to Barker's thighs in the yard. She called 911. Her family waited half an hour, but no one came. She finally called her brother-in-law, who owns a high-set pickup truck, to carry them to safety.

They've been staying with her mother since then. But they spend most of the time at her house, cleaning, salvaging and tearing.

• • •

There's still much to be done to the home. Friends and neighbors are helping Barker change the slope of her back yard, which funneled the water into her house.

Cramton said she thinks Barker will be able to move back in within two months. Barker made a face. She hoped it was much sooner.

"I hope not," she said. "When the carpet's in, I'm coming home."

Mary Kenney can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.

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