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Fighting to survive the flood

Hady Sarsour stood inside Teresa's Food Store last week and surveyed the muddy ruins of his family business, the victim of high waters and bad planning.

He looked at freezers along the back that couldn't be salvaged. He held out hope for another row of freezers but wasn't holding his breath. He stared in frustration at piles of wrapped candy, bottled soda and other convenience store basics headed for a Dumpster.

As a contractor assessed the damage, Sarsour decided not to revisit the inventory room, where workers still hadn't cleaned up the human waste left behind by a sewer backup.

A freak morning flood on Sept. 6 turned a 2-square-block area between N 15th and N 17th streets into a disaster zone. A combination of heavy summer rains, Tropical Storm Frances and mismatched stormwater pipes caused a backup that transformed the neighborhood into a fetid lake.

People evacuated by the dozens, lost furniture, appliances and other family possessions. For business owners along N 15th, such as Sarsour, it was a catastrophe of equal proportion.

While losing tens of thousands of dollars in equipment, they gained endless stress. Sarsour, whose family bought Teresa's in 1999, estimates it will cost $60,000 to $70,000 to replace his inventory. Then he and his brothers must repair the building and buy new equipment.

"Somebody's got to know about this," said Sarsour, expressing the widespread anger at local government for not building an adequate drainage system. "I don't know what the deal is."

The aftershock of the flood will be felt for months as owners continue the daunting effort of reestablishing their businesses. With resourcefulness, they are largely doing it on their own.

The neighborhood is not in a flood zone, so their insurance policies won't cover the damage. No federal, state or local agency has offered grants. The best offer to date _ and one they're not crazy about _ is the possibility of low-interest federal loans through the Small Business Administration.

Any significant drainage improvements could be months, even years, away, public works officials say. The situation breeds anger _ but determination, too.

A breathless salvage effort finally began paying off last week for Thomas Overbey, who owns Sprint Multimedia. The company, not related to Sprint Corp., specializes in training videos and high-quality photography.

A day after the flood, he waded in and built a small, cement block dam at his back door. With a pump he'd just bought, he pushed out hundreds of gallons of water through holes he cut in the door. That allowed him to set up a generator to run the fans and air conditioners. The air flow helped dry out equipment and reduce mildew.

"I'm back in business," he said Thursday. "Today is the first time I'm actually around talking to people trying to make deals."

"Everything changed in 40 minutes'

Over the past 15 years, Martha Juncal has built Davenport Services, a tax return company, into a prosperous business amid the surrounding poverty.

Then the flood came.

"Everything changes in 40 minutes," said Mike Juncal, her husband.

Now, the largest room in the ranch-style office is dedicated to drying out old files. It's going to be a slow job, said assistant Anna Miller, who's been removing each cabinet drawer one by one and separating the documents on a table in an adjacent room.

She says it's a good thing accountants used pencils, not ink, before computers took over. Though wet, the worksheets showing all the justifications for filing returns a certain way didn't smudge.

"It took me two days to do one file cabinet," she said. "That's what we're going to be doing for the next two months."

Juncal said an entire week passed before he got into the building. By that time, the water had destroyed furniture, the new carpet and a valuable computer hard drive. But other computers survived. All the tax returns had been copied to CDs.

The loss still amounts to $40,000 to $50,000, he estimated. How much they can recoup is uncertain. Insurance will pay for the sewer backup. That's about it.

"We have loads of insurance," he said. "The whole package a prudent person would carry. We don't have (flood coverage)."

One thing Juncal has plenty of is anger at Hillsborough County _ and he's not alone. Business owners here hold the county responsible for the flooding, as well as post-disaster issues like providing pumps. Although the county made them available, Juncal said he practically had to beg.

The flooding amounted to a simple, but horrific, backup, according to public works officials.

In recent years, Hillsborough invested $5- to $6-million reconfiguring the drainage system north and east of the affected area north of Fowler Avenue. Much of the work involved improving the flow of stormwater between retention ponds near the University of South Florida and University Square Mall.

But the county has a 48-inch main that feeds into smaller city of Tampa pipes at a 4-by-4-foot culvert around Fowler Avenue. That's the problem, according to county public works director Bob Gordon. Although the city and county have known about the inconsistency for years, they haven't been able to agree on a joint project to fix it, officials from both sides acknowledge.

In the meantime, the city and county did cooperate on a furious pumping effort to create extra capacity in a retention pond south of Fowler at 29th Street and E Poinsettia. Even then, it took more than a week for the waters to recede.

The crisis appears to have drawn the two governments closer together on this issue, at least. They've met once with a representative of the state Department of Transportation, which controls right of way on Fowler. One possible solution would connect the county's 48-inch main to the city's 72-inch main at 30th Street through a new line that runs along Fowler.

The county isn't waiting for the ink on the engineering documents to dry, however. In light of the disaster, the county Public Works Department recommended moving all of its proposed stormwater projects for the University area to the top of the list.

Most of the proposals pertain to new storm sewer installation. Although they would fall under the 2006-2010 watershed management plan, Gordon said the County Commission could "cherry pick" individual projects with the greatest potential for preventing flooding to homes, businesses and apartments.

Funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which declared Hillsborough a disaster area, could greatly reduce the cost to the county, he added.

Despite those efforts, however, no one rules out a repeat of the flooding _ especially with another five weeks of hurricane season left.

Can business bounce all the way back?

Assessing losses and rebuilding damaged property is one thing. Getting back to business is another.

Sarsour doesn't know how he'll pay for the new walls and floor his store will need. He worries about regaining old customers who have started shopping at other stores.

Juncal frets about lost time and money but is confident his wife will keep her clients.

George Pidick, a retired engineer in the USF Physics Department, may take on new projects. But it won't be here. The flood made him decide to leave.

While living next to Teresa's, he also kept workshops where he completed the engineering contracts that buttressed his family's income. Roomfuls of tools and electrical equipment were destroyed in the flood. He said he'll likely spend several months separating what is salvageable from what can't be used anymore.

On Thursday, he got a rare piece of good news when his car insurance company finally paid for his totaled stainless-steel DeLorean, a collector's car. That $19,200 check, and what Pidick receives from selling the property, will go toward the down payment on a new house, he said.

For the others, survival is the name of the game. Despite the difficulties, the can-do spirit that brought them success remains alive and well. There's no other choice.

"I'm here for now," Sarsour said. "It's the only income we have."

Josh Zimmer covers Temple Terrace and the University of South Florida area. He can be reached at (813)-269-5314 or zimmersptimes.com.

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