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In Idalia’s wake, two Tampa Bay realities: Luck and loss

For most in our region, the hurricane was a passing thought. For other Floridians, it spelled destruction.
 
Phillip Blay works to escape the rising water and blaze just minutes before his own mobile home caught fire early Wednesday in Tarpon Springs. Blay and his wife, Anne, were home when tidal floodwaters began to rise from Hurricane Idalia.
Phillip Blay works to escape the rising water and blaze just minutes before his own mobile home caught fire early Wednesday in Tarpon Springs. Blay and his wife, Anne, were home when tidal floodwaters began to rise from Hurricane Idalia. [ Photo courtesy of Denis Lestang ]
Published Sept. 2, 2023|Updated Sept. 2, 2023

TARPON SPRINGS — At the very tip of a peninsula on the far edge of Pinellas County, just past the mansions with their private docks, sits a small mobile home park renting lots for under $500 a month.

Chesapeake Point is the dream of panoramic waterfront sunsets made accessible to a tightknit community of mostly retirees who on normal days play cards, share beers and marvel at the passing dolphins.

Sally Andres of Michigan walks from her mobile home at Chesapeake Point after looking for damage Thursday in Tarpon Springs.
Sally Andres of Michigan walks from her mobile home at Chesapeake Point after looking for damage Thursday in Tarpon Springs. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

After days of watching Hurricane Idalia’s approach on TV from Michigan, where she spends most of the year, Sally Andres arrived Thursday to her bubblegum pink trailer at Chesapeake Point. Based on neighbors’ phone updates, she’d feared sodden floors and warped siding at the home she hopes to retire to someday. She found the place just as she’d left it, unscathed.

“How lucky,” she thought.

Two lots down, a neighbor’s blackened, collapsed home smoldered and sizzled where puddled water met the embers. Phill and Anne Blay’s piece of Eden for the past 20 years had burned to the ground as firefighters sat blocked by flooding. The Blays were staying in a motel a mile up the road, unsure what came next.

You could call the scene at Chesapeake Point a microcosm of the broader picture across Tampa Bay, where for the vast majority of residents Hurricane Idalia was nothing more than a negligible inconvenience.

A day off work, maybe. A harried trip to a busy store for water. Branches to clear, yes, but a nice excuse to eat the instant mac and cheese that should have gone back in the closet. Tampa Bay escaped widespread devastation, yet again. Life resumed.

Jerry Berg surveys damage outside his mobile home at Chesapeake Point on Thursday in Tarpon Springs. Two mobile homes burned to the ground as tidal floodwaters from Hurricane Idalia pushed into the park.
Jerry Berg surveys damage outside his mobile home at Chesapeake Point on Thursday in Tarpon Springs. Two mobile homes burned to the ground as tidal floodwaters from Hurricane Idalia pushed into the park. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Schools were open the next day, the trendy coffee shop had a long line and those guys who sit in folding chairs in the shady spot outside the food mart were back, chatting in the stagnant humidity.

But we all have neighbors with lives upended now. Rarely as close as two doors down, but for most of us, no more than a few miles across town, in places like St. Petersburg’s Shore Acres, where Idalia disastrously flooded hundreds of homes.

Even locals with no damage, who shrugged the storm off and moved on, couldn’t deny that the flooding this time was — however incrementally — worse than any in memory.

“I’ve never seen it get that high, not even close,” said St. Petersburg resident Jeff Lynn, who’d used a paddleboard to explore his street in Pinellas Point. On the lawn where Lynn stood, a distinct line of dark, leafy debris cut across the grass where the water had stopped. It was far from the front door, far from disaster, but also closer than ever.

Jeff Lynn of St. Petersburg walks through water on Sunshine Drive South, one of St. Petersburg’s pink streets in Pinellas Point, at noon Wednesday.
Jeff Lynn of St. Petersburg walks through water on Sunshine Drive South, one of St. Petersburg’s pink streets in Pinellas Point, at noon Wednesday. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Times ]

Many in Tampa Bay repeated a version of Lynn’s words this week — “The worst I’ve ever seen it.” What the “worst” meant, though, was wide-ranging, from a somewhat inconveniently blocked street to total ruin. In Tarpon Springs on Wednesday, a man used a broom to push water out a sliding glass door. His debris line looked the same as Lynn’s but was 2 feet up the exterior wall. His worst ever was worse.

In St. Petersburg’s Bayou Shores, the bayou crossed Sunrise Drive South, and three-year resident Don Reising learned that using large sacks of mulch as sandbags doesn’t work, because mulch floats. A few inches of water crept into a separate apartment on his property. He’ll have to replace some appliances.

His neighbor, Roy Hastings, stood on his lawn two days later remarking about “idiots” who kept driving through the flooded street, getting corrosive salt water on their brakes. Hastings’ garage flooded – worst he’d ever seen. But he’s been on the street 32 years and knew to get everything off the floor. No major damage, never lost power.

For the unluckiest few, though, the worst ever was clearly far worse. Some of those hit hardest live far from Tampa Bay’s densely populated urban core, finding a quietly modest version of Florida waterfront paradise, which usually means closer to danger.

In woodsy, southeast Hillsborough County, 20 minutes outside Tampa, there’s a stretch of the Alafia River just beyond U.S. 301 where a mix of upscale and smaller, older homes proves that waterfront living is not just for the affluent.

Ducks waddle in Vicki Hampton’s backyard along the Alafia River in Riverview on Thursday. Hampton said she loves living by the river despite the high flood risk, and has named the ducks that visit.
Ducks waddle in Vicki Hampton’s backyard along the Alafia River in Riverview on Thursday. Hampton said she loves living by the river despite the high flood risk, and has named the ducks that visit. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Neighbors look out for each other, especially after a storm, lending sump pumps and running communal errands.

Resident Pam Marshall keeps a 60-inch TV on her porch to watch the Buccaneers with her family, below a sign reminding them to “Sit. Relax. Enjoy.” Yards away flows the Alafia River, where manatees float by and turtles pop up their heads.

Living in this secluded community means inside knowledge of some of southern Hillsborough’s hidden gems, like The Diddy, a clear-water spring that mixes into the murkier Alafia. A rope swing hangs over the water, attracting teenagers and “Diddyits.”

“It’s a sense of freedom,” Marshall said about living on the river. “Like motorbike riders, it’s just free, open air.”

But storm surge estimated to have risen 5 or 6 feet brought the river into Marshall’s house, located in Evacuation Zone A.

Pam Marshall shares a moment with her granddaughter Callista Bryant, while Marshall’s son-in-law removes the floor boards from her home along the Alafia River in Riverview on Thursday. Marshall’s home flooded as rain bands from Hurricane Idalia pushed water over banks into some homes.
Pam Marshall shares a moment with her granddaughter Callista Bryant, while Marshall’s son-in-law removes the floor boards from her home along the Alafia River in Riverview on Thursday. Marshall’s home flooded as rain bands from Hurricane Idalia pushed water over banks into some homes. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Two days later, Marshall’s son-in-law and a friend carried damp and warped laminate floorboards out of the home and onto a trailer. Her appliances need to be replaced. A county code enforcement officer told her the home is not habitable.

She swapped storm stories with neighbor Vicki Hampton, a retired real estate agent. A 23-year resident, Hampton lives in a 640-square-foot mobile home with an upgraded deck for watching the family of ducks she’s named. Her property, extending like a finger to the edge of the Alafia, and surrounded by water on three sides, is barely 130 feet across.

Hampton loves the river so much she has an “Alafia” vanity plate on her silver sedan.

About 6 inches of floodwaters penetrated her home, soaking baseboards and kitchen cabinets, flowing all the way to the spare bedroom she jokingly calls the liquor room. Two refrigerators stored in her yard floated away.

“When you live on the river, you expect this,” she said. “You have to take the good with the bad.”

Neither woman has any intention of moving somewhere safer.

“It’s getting harder,” Hampton said. “But I’ll be here forever.”

Workers with Bryant’s All Around Services carry a soaked rug from Pam Marshall’s living room, which flooded due to the rain bands from Hurricane Idalia, in Riverview on Thursday.
Workers with Bryant’s All Around Services carry a soaked rug from Pam Marshall’s living room, which flooded due to the rain bands from Hurricane Idalia, in Riverview on Thursday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

In Gibsonton, Steve Grant lives along that same river, allowing him to launch his 23-foot center console boat from the lift in his backyard. He’d taken his golden retriever, Charlie, and hightailed it to his father’s house when the rising waters engulfed his deck Wednesday morning.

On Thursday he’d returned to find his home dry. His debris line stopped a couple of feet from his back door. Still, it was the worst he’d ever seen it.

Back at Chesapeake Point, the waterfront trailer park near Tarpon Springs, residents who made it out unscathed helped neighbors lift sopping furniture and remove heavy, soaked rugs. Others ran Shop-Vacs and power-washed siding.

Untouched homes sat beside flooded-out homes being assessed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, seemingly saved by the upward slope of a few feet, or even a few inches.

The floodwater was knee-high when the fire that eventually destroyed the Blays’ home started next door, possibly when salt water hit power outlets or the lithium batteries on an electric bicycle.

Denis Lestang walks down a street in the Chesapeake Point mobile home park as undamaged homes are seen on a hill Friday in Tarpon Springs. Some mobile homes in the park were damaged by floodwaters due to Hurricane Idalia, while others were untouched.
Denis Lestang walks down a street in the Chesapeake Point mobile home park as undamaged homes are seen on a hill Friday in Tarpon Springs. Some mobile homes in the park were damaged by floodwaters due to Hurricane Idalia, while others were untouched. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Denis Lestang, 75, was on his way to warn his neighbors about the flooding when the house went up, “like somebody lit a torch.”

Phill Blay, 82, went to retrieve his truck from atop a nearby hill. Although technically under mandatory evacuation orders, the Coast Guard veteran and former firefighter had packed essentials in the vehicle for a possible quick escape, planning to leave only if things got really bad.

Lestang helped Anne Blay, who is disabled, from her bed to the doorway. All three waited out the rest of the storm in a community clubhouse.

Lestang later found his home was fine. The water had stopped less than an inch below his elevated doorway.

“It’s a very hard thing,” Lestang said, standing near the lot where he had shared nearly two decades of happy days with his friends. “You hope it’s not you, but you hope it’s not your neighbors, too.”

Eric Larson carries a piece of air conditioning duct to repair a unit at Chesapeake Point on Friday in Tarpon Springs. After fire destroyed two mobile homes, displacing a husband and wife, Denis Lestang and Larson reached out to other residents, who let the couple stay in their mobile home.
Eric Larson carries a piece of air conditioning duct to repair a unit at Chesapeake Point on Friday in Tarpon Springs. After fire destroyed two mobile homes, displacing a husband and wife, Denis Lestang and Larson reached out to other residents, who let the couple stay in their mobile home. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

On Thursday, the Blays rested in their motel room. Lestang had been calling some of Chesapeake Bay’s snowbirds, asking if they’d lend his friends their homes.

“I’ve been down this road many times,” Blay said, referencing his past work as an emergency responder. “This kind of s--t happens in people’s lives. Nothing bothers me anymore.”

He wasn’t sure where they’d go. His wife’s doctors are in Florida. Their community is here. He felt like they needed to stay but didn’t rule out a move back to family in the northeast. Those were decisions for later.

When the weekend came, he’d return to the lot and dig through the ashes in search of their wedding rings. Neighbors, he felt sure, would be there digging with him.

• • •

A GoFundMe campaign was started by family of the Blays to help with costs related to damages from the fire. To contribute, visit bit.ly/BlayFund.