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St. Petersburg’s Shore Acres residents battle floods, fires, fatigue after Idalia

Rising tides submerged soaked belongings strewn across Shore Acres lawns the day after Idalia made landfall. Fires ignited in flooded homes.
 
Sara Eve Schaeffer, in her backyard in Shore Acres, surveys her rugs, which are waterlogged from flooding during Hurricane Idalia.
Sara Eve Schaeffer, in her backyard in Shore Acres, surveys her rugs, which are waterlogged from flooding during Hurricane Idalia. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 31, 2023|Updated Aug. 31, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — Sara Eve Schaeffer sat atop her kitchen counter with her dog, Delly, on Wednesday listening to the electrical currents from her appliances pop and spark as the water rose below in her Shore Acres home.

A day later, there was still standing water in her daughter’s bedroom, the pink walls crinkled above the baseboards. Schaeffer worried parts of the rainbow mural she painted in 6-year-old Claire’s room would wash away.

As the floodwaters from Hurricane Idalia invaded her home, Schaeffer used her daughter’s erasable Crayola to draw a high-water mark: 5 inches.

Schaeffer, 42, had sent her daughter to her father’s house Tuesday to shield her from Idalia’s wake.

“She hasn’t seen it yet,” Schaeffer said, holding back sobs. “I don’t want her to have trauma memories.”

Water covers the floor inside the bedroom of Sara Eve Schaeffer’s daughter in their home in Shore Acres.
Water covers the floor inside the bedroom of Sara Eve Schaeffer’s daughter in their home in Shore Acres. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Schaeffer’s house is one of hundreds across the neighborhood of about 12,000 homes that endured disastrous flooding from Idalia. Though Shore Acres frequently floods, even on sunny days and during typical rainstorms, residents described this flooding as generational; some said they hadn’t seen anything like it since Hurricane Elena in 1985.

Not all homes were flooded. Less than 2 miles away from Schaeffer’s home, David Noah’s stilted house towered more than 16 feet above ground level.

While the homes across the street were inundated by storm surge, Noah’s came out unscathed. He spent Wednesday looking out from his living room window, surveying from up high and reporting back to those who evacuated.

After the storm passed, two canoeists paddled down the street outside his house and marveled at its height. Prior to 2019, though, Noah’s home sat only 4 feet off the ground — and was always the first on the street to flood. So he spent $400,000 to elevate the home.

“It was just so many fire drills over time and I’m obviously getting older,” said Noah, 57, a retired field representative for a technology company. He recalls sealing off doors and prepping his home for floodwaters repeatedly over the years. “We just knew that it made sense to elevate it.”

As homeowners were busy dragging waterlogged furniture and carpets to the curb, the clerical cleanup was also just beginning Thursday as dozens of city workers began assessing the damage.

The assessments will inform the city on how much assistance will be requested from county and federal emergency managers while residents file insurance claims with the hopes of quick relief.

The city’s special projects coordinator, Beatriz Zafra, was one of the city officials to arrive Thursday morning in Shore Acres, which she said was the most damaged part of the city.

“We’re seeing people pulling out their water-damaged furniture, their carpets, they’re trying to get the water out of their home still and then, you know, debris is everywhere,” she said.

Amber Stodart, 42, owns three Shore Acres homes. She returned Thursday morning to find water in all of them.

A high-water mark of 16 inches was visible on the exterior wall of her house. Despite sandbags piled outside the door, her home still took on about an inch of water.

“It’s almost like it didn’t do anything,” Stodart said.

She said the next step will be to rip out floors and baseboards. In the meantime, she and her family will live upstairs.

“We know where we live. It’s kind of the cost of living in paradise,” she said. “It doesn’t make it any easier.”

Kevin Batdorf has seen the neighborhood he has called home since 1986 get flooded over and over.

This time, he saw his neighbors riding in the back of a dump truck with a trash bag full of clothes. He also saw two houses in flames because crews couldn’t get there due to flooded streets.

“The look on their faces,” Batdorf said. “It’s just heartbreaking.”

Batdorf is the president of the Shore Acres Civic Association, the vocal neighborhood group representing the owners of almost 2,800 homes.

The neighborhood is concave, like a bowl, and Batdorf said expensive waterfront homes are built higher and more protected while working-class homes in the middle are lower in elevation.

“The people who are hit by flooding are workforce housing,” he said.

The evacuees he saw on the back of the truck were among the 75 people who city officials say were rescued by St. Petersburg Fire Rescue in high-flood areas.

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue responds to a call of a house fire on a  flooded street in Shore Acres in the aftermath of Hurricane Idalia on Thursday.
St. Petersburg Fire Rescue responds to a call of a house fire on a flooded street in Shore Acres in the aftermath of Hurricane Idalia on Thursday. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

With more than 400 repetitive claims losses for flooding in Shore Acres, Batdorf has an idea for a fix: creating a special tax district that could help people elevate their homes and pay back the cost when they sell. When enough homes are elevated, the city could raise streets. It’s something he has floated to state Rep. Lindsay Cross, D-St. Petersburg, and Mayor Ken Welch.

“If the streets were 2 feet higher, we wouldn’t be driving through floodwater most of the time,” he said. “It’s going to take time but that’s the solution. Trying to keep the water out is not the solution.”

In between fielding 1,000 requests to join the neighborhood’s Facebook groups and posts with questions about their homes and when they could return, Batdorf was on the phone with City Council member Ed Montanari, whose district includes Shore Acres.

Montanari on Thursday morning drove his white Ford pickup through the neighborhood, where his family lived when they moved to the area in the 1970s. He drove past several homes with “No Wake Zone” yard signs.

“I’ve heard from a lot of residents that this is the worst flooding they’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch speaks with homeowners in Shore Acres in the aftermath of Hurricane Idalia.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch speaks with homeowners in Shore Acres in the aftermath of Hurricane Idalia. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Mayor Welch on Thursday went door to door meeting residents who were flooded.

Welch said the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster declaration for Florida on Thursday left out Pinellas County, something he hopes to see remedied.

“We’re working on that to make sure that we get all the support and the resources from the federal government,” he said.

“I think the weather obviously is changing,” he added. “Storms are more impactful and the flood and storm surges that we get out of that, I think it’s going to be more impactful.”

As for short-term and long-term solutions for an area already prone to sunny-day flooding and high tides, he said that’s the reason rates go up 5% annually to pay for investments into the stormwater system.

Public works administrator Claude Tankersley said wastewater systems held up really well, but the reclaimed system was shut off and will remain off for a few days because of too much salt water mixed in.

This home on Bayou Grande Boulevard NE in St. Petersburg's Shore Acres neighborhood was badly damaged by fire on Wednesday.
This home on Bayou Grande Boulevard NE in St. Petersburg's Shore Acres neighborhood was badly damaged by fire on Wednesday. [ MAX CHESNES, MAX CHESNES | Times ]

Schaeffer, the resident who rode out Idalia on her kitchen countertop, said her home has flooded twice in five years. She has already filed an insurance claim through Citizens Property Insurance but said an adjuster won’t be available for another week.

This will be the second time she replaces her car, which was totaled by the surge, and flooring. After Hurricane Eta three years ago, Schaeffer swapped out her carpet for hardwood floors, hoping it would hold up better. Now, after Idalia, she’s considering putting in polished concrete.

Schaeffer, who works in health care, raised her dryer on cinder blocks, which saved it from flood damage. While most of her belongings were soaked, the dryer was filled with her daughter’s sopping-wet stuffed animals.

She said she tries not to have regrets but wished she did more to prepare.

Instead of tuning to the Weather Channel on Tuesday night, she watched a Scooby-Doo movie with her daughter.

“I just wanted her to feel normal,” Schaeffer said. “I just want all the toys dry.”

• • •

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