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‘We have bad news.’ A Shore Acres woman recalls Idalia’s fiery aftermath

“You want to go home, be in this place where you feel comfort. But you don’t have it anymore.”
 
Oxalis Garcia, her husband, Holvin Rosario, and their 15-year-old son, Marcus, lost their home in Shore Acres to Hurricane Idalia.
Oxalis Garcia, her husband, Holvin Rosario, and their 15-year-old son, Marcus, lost their home in Shore Acres to Hurricane Idalia. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Sept. 11, 2023|Updated Sept. 12, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — When Hurricane Idalia swept up Florida’s west coast last month, Oxalis Garcia and her family evacuated their Shore Acres home. Garcia, 43, is a family law attorney. Her husband, Holvin Rosario, 54, is an Army veteran and private chef. Their son, Marcus, 15, is a high school sophomore.

The family, from Puerto Rico, has lived with hurricanes all their lives. They prepared early, recalling Hurricane Ian, sealing the home they had lived in for eight years. They rode out the storm with their black Lab, Madonna, at a friend’s house.

A week later, Garcia shared her story.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

• • •

Oxalis Garcia with her husband Holvin Rosario in Shore Acres on Saturday. Their home was completely destroyed after catching fire due to Hurricane Idalia’s storm surge as it flooded the entire neighborhood.
Oxalis Garcia with her husband Holvin Rosario in Shore Acres on Saturday. Their home was completely destroyed after catching fire due to Hurricane Idalia’s storm surge as it flooded the entire neighborhood. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

That night, my son was playing video games with his friend, and the adults were glued to the TV. Watching, tracking the hurricane and looking outside: no wind, no rain.

I was thinking, maybe I should have stayed like my neighbors. I went to bed around 1:30 a.m., and it seemed like our Tampa Bay area had been spared.

The following morning, I woke up to text messages from my neighbors. They had to quickly evacuate around 7 a.m. because the water started coming in. One neighbor said she grabbed her dog and her son, who’s 7, and they waded through chest-high water.

Another neighbor, across the street, put a screenshot from her Ring camera on Facebook around 9 a.m. and my house looked fine. It looked like all our preparation was keeping the water out.

I don’t know exactly what time it was: 11 or 12? My neighbor called me in a panic saying, “Oh, my gosh! Your house is on fire! Your house is on fire!”

And I was like, “Well, call the fire department!”

I called, and they took down the address. I explained we had evacuated, and they said, “Well, we’ve notified the firefighters. But they can’t go in.”

My husband and I got in his car and drove to Shore Acres. But the water was way too high. We couldn’t get anywhere close.

A couple of hours later, the water had gone down far enough that we were able to park at Shore Acres Elementary. We walked down 62nd Avenue into the intersection with Bayou Grande.

My husband said, “Look at the water!”

I said, “Well, you can stay here if you want. But I’m going in.”

I waded a couple of blocks through the water. It was waist-high. It was very hard. My flip-flops broke. It got to a point where I just took them off. I went against everything every official and safety professional tells you to do.

And when I got closer, I could see the flames. We had a metal roof, so the flames were coming between the roof and the walls, all around the house. Firefighters were there with their little boat and they’re like, “You need to go back.”

And I said, “No, my house is on fire and I need to get pictures.” That’s the attorney in me: I need evidence.

Our house was beautiful, pale pink. It had three bedrooms, two baths, an open layout, screened porch. Typical Florida block home, 1968. Nice backyard. We had a lot of plants both inside and out.

We liked that it was close to the bay but not right on the water. It has a good school district and we made really good friendships with our neighbors. We would have block parties, barbecue. It was like having family nearby.

Most of the plants got burned. The metal roof collapsed. The fire hydrants were underwater, not working. I don’t know how eventually the fire was put out.

The firefighters picked me up, put me in their boat, took me back to dry land where my husband was waiting. I just showed him the pictures and I said, “There’s probably nothing we can do.”

I gave him his space, let him shut down.

Oxalis Garcia’s husband, Holvin Rosario, shows cellphone photos to insurance adjuster Doug Laborde as he inspects their home in Shore Acres.
Oxalis Garcia’s husband, Holvin Rosario, shows cellphone photos to insurance adjuster Doug Laborde as he inspects their home in Shore Acres. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Oxalis Garcia inspects the charred remains of her home on Saturday.
Oxalis Garcia inspects the charred remains of her home on Saturday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

When we got back to Marcus, we told him, “We have bad news.” And he’s like, “So does that mean we get a new house?” And we’re like, “Yes, we will get a new house.” And he’s like, “OK. Cool.” And went back to playing video games.

I don’t think it sunk in until the following day when he asked me, “So that means I lost my soccer medals? And my PlayStation?” That’s when I told him, “Why don’t you just make a list of the things that were in your bedroom that you lost?”

At that point, I was still in attorney mode. My first step was to notify the mortgage company and the insurance company and get the ball rolling.

It wasn’t until later that I had made the very difficult decision to post it on Facebook. Because after I did the things with the insurance and the list, it dawned on me that I had no clothes whatsoever, nothing that I could wear to court for my upcoming hearings.

That night — the first two nights — I broke down. In private. I feel like, especially with my son, I need to show him that everything’s going to be OK. Because children watch you, they rely on you for comfort. So I broke down with my husband. I told him, “I need you to console me.”

He’s the only one who can really understand: You want to go home, be in this place where you feel comfort. But you don’t have it anymore. So you have nowhere to go. It’s not even the things you lost. It’s the place. All the memories.

I had to meet a fire marshal there the following day. I wanted to see if I could find any jewelry, coins I collected in Europe before they switched to the euro, my grandmother’s cooking pots, my husband’s paella pan.

But when I got there, any hope quickly dissipated. Everything burned to the ground; the windows shattered. There’s about 3 feet of ashes inside.

Marcus’ bedroom furniture was a family heirloom that has been handed down in my family for seven generations, brought by boat from Puerto Rico. It was made of wood, so it probably burned quickly. I had chairs that my grandmother gave me that her father had built by hand, which were also lost. And the rocking chair with my name on it, custom-made when Marcus was born. I lost family pictures that can’t be replaced, pictures of when I was a baby, a teenager, when I went on college trips.

They condemned the house that afternoon.

For the next five days, I shut down. That’s not like me. I was in zombie mode. Then, finally, I fell asleep from pure exhaustion.

Next we focused on getting basic necessities. The second priority was to find housing. We moved to stay with my grandmother, who’s 88. She is a refugee from Hurricane Maria, from Puerto Rico. She stayed because of all her health issues. And now we’re staying with her.

But we finally have a rental lined up for Oct. 1. Furnished.

Now, we’re focused on trying to get back our normal, day-to-day lives.

I didn’t go to work until Wednesday, Sept. 6. I was dealing with all of the insurance. We have homeowners and flood. But we still don’t know what caused the fire. Did the water go in first? Did a flood cause the fire? That’s my concern. Based on my experience in the legal field, talking to my colleagues, the insurance companies are probably going to try to blame it on each other, which I really, really hope they don’t do. All we really want is to just be able to close this chapter.

I’ve seen our dog decline a lot in the past few days. She has severe arthritis in her back and hind legs. She spends a lot of time in the bathroom because she’s anxious. We moved her twice in a week, and she’s not home in her element. She doesn’t have her yard or her toys.

It’s an eerie feeling to go to a store and look at something and go, “Oh, I used to have that!” Everything from my KitchenAid mixer to shoes, earrings. Even at the grocery store. “Oh, I had that in my pantry.” Now, I don’t have a pantry.

Everybody was telling me, “Do a GoFundMe page.” I didn’t feel right about doing that. So my brother went ahead and did it.

The support we’ve received, not just from the Tampa Bay community, but even from within Shore Acres, has been so surprising, so touching. I didn’t realize how many lives I had touched throughout the years that now were coming to my aid in my time of need. Made me cry.

I had a colleague, she brought some clothes. She also brought some purses and a hair dryer. I would have never thought about those things. Whether it was buying me some bras on Amazon or giving a donation, no matter the amount, I just want to thank those people who helped.

It’s only been a week. Our next focus will be to find a new, permanent family home. We could rebuild on the property. We just don’t think we will. We’re taking it as a sign of God: telling us that we should not be there. My family believes that everything happens for a reason in life. God, or the spiritual world, whatever your beliefs are, has a way of guiding you and taking you where you need to be.

And for some reason that we may not understand at this moment, it was time for us to leave Shore Acres.

You can either let a tragedy break you or make you stronger. It’s all how you decide to approach it. How can we make this bad situation into a blessing for us?

That’s still to be determined.

"For some reason that we may not understand at this moment, it was time for us to leave Shore Acres," said Oxalis Garcia.
"For some reason that we may not understand at this moment, it was time for us to leave Shore Acres," said Oxalis Garcia. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]