Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Irma flood victims assess damage, look to FEMA for help. (w/video)

LITHIA — The sun was just setting Wednesday when Justin Lyons guided the front of his kayak onto his front porch.

After evacuating from Alafia River floodwaters in the middle of the night Tuesday, Lyons needed to see first-hand the damage in his home.

Inside, soda bottles, cans of bug spray and personal possessions floated in the calf-deep water. A refrigerator lay flipped on its side. The overpowering smell of sewage made Lyons gag.

"There's not much I'm afraid of but this is hard," he said. "It's scary not knowing where you'll be and what is happening."

About 130 Hillsborough homes and buildings were inundated with water this week from rivers swollen by rains from Hurricane Irma. Homes alongside rivers in Pasco and Hernando counties also have been flooded.

As receding waters have begun to reveal the true extent of damage to homes, flood victims like Lyons are wondering: What now?

The official answer for residents is that they need to reach out to FEMA.

The three counties are among 37 that FEMA has designated as eligible for individual assistance, meaning residents and business owners can apply for uninsured or under-insured damages and losses. FEMA's system allows claims to be submitted using a smartphone app, telephone or online.

But whether help will arrive in time remains a fear for those who are staying in hotels paid for by the generosity of neighbors and local charities and people staying with friends who fear they will outstay their welcome.

Lyons has spent the last few nights with a friend. His mother, Mary Lyons, has reached out to FEMA for assistance but doesn't yet know what, if any assistance, they will receive.

"Right now, it feels like a throw of the dice," Lyons said.

FEMA assistance can include grants to cover temporary housing and home repairs. There is also help with medical and dental expenses and even funeral and burial costs.

But for some flood victims, even making a claim can be tough.

Mike and Ronalyn Cribbs and their two sons on Thursday ate a donated breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon on the curb at a gas station on Lithia Pinecrest Road.

Their home was inundated with more than 2 feet of water Tuesday morning. Now damp and mildew is starting to spread throughout the house. They balked at paying the $2,000 annual premium for flood insurance.

Since Tuesday they have stayed at a hotel room paid for through donations from Fishhawk Ranch residents. But the hotel does not have Internet service, making it tough for Ronalyn Cribbs to reach FEMA.

Flood victims in Lithia have been getting help from Seeds of Hope, a Lithia non-profit that set up a disaster relief effort providing food, water and clothing.

President Leda Eaton said the toughest challenge for the families is still ahead as they try to rebuild their homes and lives.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

 
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