Wednesday, April 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Many Hernando residents still recovering from Debby

The double-wide mobile home has the feel of a place Jim and Kathy Rousakis have called home for years.

Nestled on a wooded lot off Grove Road, west of Brooksville, the trailer is stuffed with prized possessions collected over four decades of marriage. An oil painting of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the Gothic church in Savannah, Ga., where they said their vows, hangs in the living room. Below the painting is the secretary desk passed down from Jim's grandparents. An ornate wooden table that belonged to Kathy's grandmother sits in another corner.

But the rented trailer is just a way station on a journey that began one year ago, when Tropical Storm Debby's record-setting rainfall invaded the couple's ranch home on the edge of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

And now, in the first month of another hurricane, the Rousakises are among many Hernando residents still working to put their lives back together after Debby. Some have had more success than others.

"This is not moving on with our lives because we still have to find a final resting place," Jim said last week as he sat at the sturdy wooden kitchen table salvaged from the floodwaters. "And this is not it."

When the rain started to fall, a line of tidy mobile homes lined Rappelo Road and Kim Drive in the Imperial Estates mobile home park, south of Brooksville.

By last week, only eerie remnants of the homes and their owners remained. Weeds sprouted from rectangular patches flanked by concrete driveways and patio slabs. A shed sat empty, and a rusty satellite dish stood like a sentinel.

A dozen trailers flooded in that part of the park off Powell Road, just east of U.S. 41. Several of the owners who lacked insurance salvaged what they could and walked away, leaving park owner Woody Wirtz to pay a couple thousand dollars to have them demolished and hauled away.

Wirtz got good news recently when Florida Department of Transportation officials told him they planned to install some pipes under U.S. 41 to help move water away from the park and into an expanded retention area on the west side of the highway.

In the meantime, Wirtz said he's not too worried about the storm season ahead.

"(Debby) was a once-in-a-lifetime storm, probably," he said. "And there's nothing back there to flood anymore."

Before the storm, Bill and Sandy Bayer lived for 16 years in a 40-foot Avion fifth-wheel trailer in another part of the park. Floodwaters ruined it.

The retirees used insurance money and a loan from their son to pay cash for a yellow mobile home on the high-ground side of Kim Drive. They like the park.

"We're doing real great," Bill said last week as he stood in his front yard. "I'll probably be here till I go to a different place."

• • •

Bill Gregoire figured his family would be home by now.

Debby's downpours caused more than a dozen sinkholes to open in the drainage area behind Gregoire's two-story house in Trillium, a community on County Line Road near the Suncoast Parkway. Gregoire, his wife and their two children went to stay with family members.

Less than a week later they moved back, only to flee again when a sinkhole opened under their house on Nodding Shade Drive. The hole grew to 8 feet wide and 8 feet deep, said Gregoire, a 36-year-old district chief with the New Port Richey Fire Department.

It was December before their insurance company decided how to handle the settlement. Now Gregoire is struggling with a sinkhole contractor he says is giving him the runaround.

"I had a very colorful conversation with him," Gregoire said last week.

In the meantime, the family is renting a home in Spring Hill. The insurance policy helps cover rental fees, but that money is almost gone. Gregoire said it may be September before the sinkhole repair work is done and his family can come home.

"It's frustrating, but nobody got hurt," he said. "All you can do is make the best of it and try to stay calm."

The Gregoires are among at least 10 homeowners on Nodding Shade affected by sinkholes.

Among them are Jim and Rosa Kellermann, who live three doors down with their golden retriever, Rocky, in what they call their dream home. After the storm, an engineer confirmed sinkhole activity on their property.

With the help of a lawyer, they won a settlement from their insurance company. But they say the money isn't enough to cover the cost of filling the voids, pinning the home and fixing cosmetic damages.

They're still trying to decide how to proceed.

"This has been the most stressful year of my life," Jim said last week as he and Rocky stood in the back yard. "Every time it rains, I really do get nervous."

Things could be worse. The Kellermanns said at least two neighbors had to walk away from their homes and mortgages.

The Kellermanns planned to host a block party over the weekend to celebrate their neighbors' spirit of perseverance over the last year. Jim's classic rock cover band — appropriately but coincidentally called Kommon Ground — will play.

"You could call it a survivor party," he said.

• • •

Jim and Kathy Rousakis are surviving, too, but they're in limbo.

They are among 1,589 households that applied for some form of assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Debby's wake, but only one of five who sought help from the agency's mitigation grant program.

Their 2,200-square-foot home on Rochelle Road sits half-gutted and infested with mold. Piles of their ruined belongings still sit a few feet away. Based on new flood maps, the 2 1/2-acre, oak tree-shaded lot is now in a flood zone. To rebuild there, the couple would need to truck in enough fill dirt to raise the house 8 feet, or build a stilt home that would likely be inaccessible if the area flooded again.

Their insurance check won't cover the cost to tear down the house and build a new one, so they hope FEMA will pay them $150,000 for the property as it sits. That could be enough to pay off the mortgage and start saving for a new home.

Their application has been reviewed by the state and is now at the federal level, said Cecilia Patella, the county's emergency management director, whose department helped prepare the application.

Patella said she warned the Rousakises and the other applicants that the process would take months. She said she expects the Rousakises' grant to be approved.

"(The state) won't send an application to FEMA that they don't feel is absolutely completed because they don't want to take any chances it's going to get returned or denied," Patella said. "So they go over it with a fine-tooth comb."

After the storm, the Rousakises moved to a tiny two-bedroom apartment, and Kathy has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Moving to the bigger place on Grove Road allowed them to rescue their beloved possessions from a storage unit and made her feel better.

"You're looking at something familiar, your own things, and that brings the morale way up," Kathy said.

They recently fell in love with an immaculate, newer mobile home near Dade City.

"I said this has got to be ours because it's got a dirt road to get to it," Jim said. "And it's up on high ground."

Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

     
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