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Christopher O'Donnell, Times Staff Writer

Christopher O'Donnell

Christopher O'Donnell is a general assignment and local government reporter with the Tampa Bay Times. He was born and grew up in London, England, where he worked for IBM and Citi as a computer programmer and IT analyst. After moving to Florida in 2001, he earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of South Florida before landing a job with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. During a seven-year stint there, he earned a Florida Society of News Editors award for his coverage of K-12 education. Before joining the Times, he spent three years with the Tampa Tribune and covered city government in both St. Petersburg and Tampa and led coverage of the Tampa Bay Rays' quest for a new ballpark. Away from work, Chris rides his road bicycle on local trails and is an avid soccer fan.

Phone: (813) 226 3446


Twitter: @codonnell_Times

  1. Along the Alafia River, the grateful extend a hand to the Irma-sodden weary (w/video)


    LITHIA — The things that make a house a home dried in the afternoon sun Thursday in a front yard on Williams Street.

    Stuffed toys, kitchen chairs, ornaments and a photograph album lay near rotting timber and roofing insulation.

    Inside the empty structure, Pastor David Whitten ripped out drywall left sodden by near-record high flooding along the Alafia River in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Volunteers from his FishHawk Fellowship Church hauled out debris....

    Volunteers from FishHawk Fellowship Church helped Brian Hood (left) clean up debris from his yard in Valrico, Fla. Last week the Alafia River reached a depth of almost 23 feet, about 10 feet above its flood stage. Many homes were damaged, some became uninhabitable. Hood's home is 6 inches above Lithia Pinecrest Road, and did not sustain flood damage, though not all of his neighbors were as lucky.   [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
  2. 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....

    Justin Lyons, 29, kayaks back to his home for more belongings, in the flood waters from the Alafia River, from River Drive, off of Lithia Pinecrest in Valrico.  [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
  3. Outpouring of support and aid leaves Alafia flood victims surprised, emotional


    VALRICO — When the floodwaters came at 3 a.m. Tuesday, high ground for Amber Horton was the Shell gas station on Lithia Pinecrest Road.

    After escaping through waist-high water, she waited out the night lying on a concrete floor with some of her neighbors. Others slept in the carwash.

    She was back at the gas station Wednesday, but this time bacon and eggs were sizzling on a huge outdoor grill, and cases of water, bagels and cans of food were stacked on folding tables. ...

    Amy Malcolm loads food and two backpacks of clothing into a trailer attached to her all-terrain vehicle Wednesday. The donations came from a relief center set up by local groups and volunteers in response to flooding on the Alafia River. The RV that Malcolm shares with her boyfriend and two sons was damaged by flooding. "I don't know what to do."      [CHRISTOPHER O'DONNELL   |   Times]
  4. Swollen by Irma, region's rivers overflow flooding homes and vehicles


    VALRICO — All day Monday, neighbors on River Drive in Valrico watched in fear as the Hurricane Irma-swollen Alafia River inched toward their front doors.

    It was worse after dark, the floodwaters encroaching in black silence.

    The threat was too much for Justin Lyons' mom, who was rushed to Brandon Regional Hospital after a panic attack.

    He stayed to keep their double-wide home safe from looters, but then fled himself at 3 a.m. when waters inundated the house. ...

    A house with chickens on the roof is surrounded by Alafia River floodwaters along River Drive in Valrico.
  5. Alafia River reaching historic flood levels in wake of Irma


    LITHIA — With water from the Alafia River lapping against the wheels of his John Deere tractor, Mike Cribbs turned the starter key.


    "We're going to have to jump it," he shouted.

    Throughout Monday Cribbs had watched the Alafia River creep closer to his house. By 6:30 p.m., he knew it was time to get his cars and vehicles out of the path of the rising river.

    He lives half a mile from the Alafia....

    A flooded home on River Drive in East Hillsborough Monday. The Alafia River is expected to reach 20 feet by Tuesday morning, a level it last reached in 1935, according to the National Weather Service.   [Photo: Christopher O'Donnell]
  6. Winds topple steeple at church on Nebraska Ave. just before pastor's installation


    TAMPA — Benjamin Curry isn't due to be installed as the pastor of the Greater New Salem Primitive Baptist Church until Wednesday.

    But as the church's de facto leader, Curry felt he should make sure the property on Nebraska Avenue had come through Hurricane Irma safely.

    He barely saw any storm damage on the trip from his Brandon home so it was a jolt when he arrived to find that hurricane-force winds had ripped most of the steeple off the top of the church. ...

    The church steeple at Greater New Salem Primitive Baptist Church in Tampa crashed to the ground, opening a hole in the roof that allowed rain water to seep in. [LUIS SANTANA   |   Times]

  7. Irma Squirma: Tampa Bay's final push to find shelter, grab beer, make money


    Dozens of onlookers flocked Sunday afternoon to the northern end of St. Petersburg's Vinoy Park, where the western edge of Tampa Bay receded like an extreme low tide. Several hopped from the basin wall to the spongy, grassy muck below, venturing hundreds of feet into what would normally be water as police watched from their cars.

    In Tampa, 10-year-old Felix Carillo and his mom almost settled for selfies of a similar view over the iconic balustrade along Bayshore Boulevard. But after a few minutes of watching from the sidewalk, they just couldn't resist taking a walk where they're used to seeing water, joining other curious people smiling as their flip-flops stuck in the mud....

    Angela Cassell, 89, is rolled out of her Weeki Wachee home by longtime Hernando County school bus driver Mena Bates.
  8. Hurricane Irma is so strong it's pulling water from Tampa Bay's shores


    TAMPA — Streets throughout downtown had been empty for hours and people were returning to their homes to ride out Hurricane Irma ahead of the city's 6 p.m. curfew.

    But what they spotted on the way was too much to pass up for some people, including 10-year-old Felix Carrillo and his mom, Hilda Carillo....

    Hurricane Irma drained some waterways across the Tampa Bay area in advance of its arrival, including the north end of Hillsborough Bay along Bayshore Boulevard. People took advantage of the chance to walk where they're used to seeing water. [ANASTASIA DAWSON   |   Times]
  9. Tampa General Hospital riding out storm with 800 patients, staff, families


    TAMPA — Located in a Level A evacuation zone on Davis Islands, the current track of Hurricane Irma could hardly be any worse for Tampa General Hospital, the region's only Level 1 trauma center.

    Some 650 patients are still in the hospital. An emergency "Team A" group of doctors, nurses and staff began a five-day shift Saturday and will remain in the hospital throughout the storm to care for patients and provide emergency-room treatment to victims of the storm, said Ellen Fiss, the hospital's public relations manager....

    Tampa General Hospital in Tampa. (Times files)
  10. Hurricane Irma: New Tampa mosque opens as shelter for first time

    Public Safety

    TAMPA — For now it's their hurricane shelter, but Muslim rules about removing your shoes are still being observed at a makeshift shelter set up at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay mosque.

    More than 500 people are planning to hunker down at the makeshift shelter set up at the mosque's multicultural center, which is now full. Most are Muslim, but the shelter was open to all people and is providing refuge for at least 50 non-Muslims, said Aida Mackic, a shelter organizer who is also the interfaith and youth program director with Council on American-Islamic Relations...

    The Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area opened its doors to anyone seeking temporary shelter during Hurricane Irma. Evacuees were housed in the Istaba multipurpose building and was quickly at capacity housing over 500 people. [Saturday, September 9, 2017] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
  11. Tampa residents go to the source to fill sandbags


    DAVIS ISLANDS — The City of Tampa may have closed its sandbag operation but that hasn't stopped some South Tampa residents from getting creative.

    Armed with trash and canvas bags, a handful of residents on Saturday morning headed to the Davis Islands Beach to make improvised sandbags to shore up doorways and patio doors ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma.

    That included George Blake and his family, who shoveled the fine white sand into 10 black trash bags and a few canvas bags and loaded it onto the back of their navy blue pickup truck....

     A handful of people visit the Davis Islands beach Saturday to fill up sandbags and trash bags filled with sand. LUIS SANTANA | Times
  12. Stay or go? Foster group homes make a tough call as Irma approaches


    LUTZ — Almost 40 Hillsborough foster children are expected to ride out Hurricane Irma at Joshua House, a group foster home in Lutz.

    On Friday, they were joined by another 14 foster kids, five staffers, three family members, a dog and two cats — evacuees from another foster home in Brevard County.

    As Hurricane Irma moves closer to a direct strike on Florida, group foster homes across the state are weighing whether they should ride out the storm or evacuate. For officials who have to make that decision, it's a complex calculation....

    Joshua House executive director DeDe Grundel, shown in the food pantry in December, says it’s best to keep the TV off of hurricane updates so as not to upset the children.
  13. Local housing authorities warn public housing residents to prepare for storm and heed evacuation orders


    TAMPA — Local housing authorities are telling public housing residents to prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Irma and heed evacuations warnings as the Category 5 storm draws closer to Florida.

    The Tampa Housing Authority, which owns and manages more than 5,000 public housing apartments and a 79-bed assisted living facility, this week issued every property an emergency checklist with tips on hurricane preparations and information about shelters....

    A portion of the Robles Park Village apartments is seen as an unidentified boy walks past. The community is one of 13 owned and run by the Tampa Housing Authority, which is warning residents to heed any evacuation warnings for Hurricane Irma.   [CHRIS URSO  |   Special to the Times]
  14. Castor and Nelson pressure Florida to reinstate sick children to top-tier Medicaid plan


    TAMPA — Two Democratic congressional lawmakers are asking the federal government to intervene and pressure Florida to reinstate specialized health coverage for thousands of sick and disabled children.

    U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor called Thursday for action to help children previously enrolled in Children's Medical Services, a Medicaid plan that covers treatment for conditions such as birth defects, heart disease, diabetes and blindness....

    U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor speak Thursday to news reporters at Tampa International Airport. They are calling for the federal government to intervene in the state’s  handling of 13,000 sick and disabled children who, in 2015, were removed from Children’s Medical Services, a Medicaid program that provides specialized medical care.
  15. Tampa nonprofit opens Florida's first safe house for boys forced into sex trade


    TAMPA — The vast majority of children who are sold or forced into the sex trade are girls.

    But not all.

    Boys made up 7 percent of child victims in Florida, according to a recent state study. But some care workers estimate that number could be has high as 10 to 15 percent.

    But until this month, Florida had not even one safe bed for boys rescued from trafficking.

    A new safe home in west-central Florida, which formally opened Tuesday, will be one of only a handful in the nation that cater to boys. It's run by the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, a nonprofit group based in Tampa. The home has already admitted its first boy....

    The U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, a nonprofit, this month opened a safe home for boys who are victims of sexual trafficking. To keep its location secret, a bedroom set from the home was transported to the Yankees Pavilion at George Steinbrenner Field for the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Tuesday. The home will provide shelter and trauma treatment for five boys.