It has been six months and the ground floor is still a wasteland, the lower portion of the walls ripped out, the tiles bubbling up from the wetness that still festers underneath. It smells of mold. Outside, the septic tank is still broken; what is flushed flows through a pipe into a quarantined section of the property.
"Nobody saw this coming," Karl Lichtenberg said on the deck of his home on Elfers Parkway, one of several areas in Pasco devastated in June by Tropical Storm Debby. Torrential rain dumped more than 16 inches of water in one day. And the rain kept coming, causing flooding and massive evacuations that west Pasco had not seen since the hurricane season of 2004.
More than 7,000 homes and businesses had to evacuate. Rivers swelled and crested their banks, the currents so strong in neighborhoods along the Anclote River in Elfers that one man venturing outside drowned. At Thousand Oaks in Trinity, residents took sledgehammers to punch holes in the wall around their community to relieve the rising waters. Many people in Pasco had to be rescued by airboats. Dozens with no place to go stayed at shelters.
Every year there is only a 1 percent chance the county will see a storm of that magnitude, said Annette Doying, director of emergency management for Pasco County.
"There were many people who suffered from Debby," Doying said.
And months later, some of them are still slogging through the effects.
Doying said about 20 Pasco families were not able to return to their homes. The county is working with them to find permanent housing and federal assistance.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved 1,256 applications for more than $5.1 million in individual assistance to Pasco residents. FEMA also approved more than $1.5 million in public assistance for emergency work done during the storm and permanent work still to do, such as repairing roads. County officials are considering different options for drainage improvements in Trinity, with the hope of reducing future flooding in Thousand Oaks.
But some people, like Lichtenberg, are still struggling to rebuild.
"At the end of the day, some survivors will find themselves without the resources they feel are required to be made whole," Doying said. "That is part of what makes it a disaster."
Lichtenberg, 55, is a self-employed plumber and military veteran who values hard work. He and his wife of 35 years raised three children in a home they loved in Tarpon Springs, but when the economy went sour and the plumbing business stalled, they couldn't make their mortgage payments. Lichtenberg said they had to sell it in a short sale and relocated to a rental in Pasco. But they wanted to own a home again, like they always had, Lichtenberg said. So they found this two-story house right on the banks of the Anclote River, with quiet, peaceful places to sit in the middle of Old Florida, cypress, cedar, live oaks, hickory, bamboo. Gators. Otters. Owls. Manatees hang out there in the winter. The land is 1.45 acres, with a trailer and garage.
The rural neighborhood can be rough, but at $80,000 "it was what we could afford," Lichtenberg said.
They got flood insurance and bought the house. Two of their children and one grandchild lived on the ground floor. He and his wife lived on the top. It was good.
Lichtenberg said he and his family had never dealt with a severe flood before. The water from Debby crept up so slowly, that by the time they realized they were in trouble it was too late.
"It kept coming," he said.
They had to evacuate. When they left, the first story was dry, thanks to a pump working to keep out the rising water. But then the power went out. When they came back by boat to check on the house, the first story was submerged in more than two feet of putrid flood water.
When the water subsided and they could go back home, it was a mess. But they felt confident they could get it fixed soon.
Then the trouble began.
Lichtenberg said his insurance company paid only $12,500 for the damages to his property, hardly enough to fix it.
It turns out the house, which was built in 1960, is listed with the Pasco County Property Appraiser's office as being a one story house. It's possible someone who owned it previously did an addition without permits — either building the second story or enclosing the ground floor area into a living space, instead of just leaving the stilts that kept the original home above the floodplain. No one caught the mistake when Lichtenberg bought the property.
After Debby, an adjuster from the insurance company came out to the residence and deemed the ground level to be a basement, which isn't covered by flood insurance.
Lichtenberg said most of the $12,500 he received was for the damage to his garage. He said he got $3,000 from FEMA, which helped.
He needs more.
Lichtenberg said he wants his insurance company to pay for what's left, the new septic tank and the $50,000 in repairs to the ground floor and the $9,000 bill he owes to the company that ripped out the water-logged walls and cleaned out debris immediately after the storm. He feels stuck.
He still lives on the top floor with his wife. His son and grandson often stay the night with them. He said he doesn't want to be thought of as a victim. He's talking because he knows there must be others out there, trying to navigate the confusing world of insurance and government.
"It's not just about me," he said. "There are dozens and dozens, if not thousands, of me's out there that are going through the same thing."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.
The rain came, and kept coming, causing more than 7,000 homes and businesses to evacuate in west Pasco. Along the Anclote River, one man died. Many still struggle in the aftermath of the storm months later. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved 1,256 applications for assistance.
JUNE.Tropical Storm Debby dumped 16 inches of rain on west Pasco in one day.