As flooded-out residents return home, Pasco officials look at buying out homeowners

From left, Matthew Sims, 12, Elizabeth Rivera, 4, David Rivera, 43, and Jasmine Rivera, 36, navigate through mud to get into their home near the Anclote River on Wednesday.
From left, Matthew Sims, 12, Elizabeth Rivera, 4, David Rivera, 43, and Jasmine Rivera, 36, navigate through mud to get into their home near the Anclote River on Wednesday.
Published Sept. 8, 2016

NEW PORT RICHEY — When the Riveras moved into their home on Elfers Parkway just a few weeks ago, they said nobody told them the nearby Anclote River flooded.

There was no mention of it in the lease, David Rivera said. He said the landlord didn't say a word about it.

Then came Hurricane Hermine.

After spending five days in a hurricane shelter, the family of six returned home Wednesday after the waters of the flooded river finally receded.

They found that the trailer's foundation was insecure. The siding started to peel off and water had damaged the floors and roof. The home was uninhabitable.

And the landlord still hasn't called them back.

"I have the biggest headache right now," said Rivera, 43.

It was just one of 2,672 Pasco homes affected by the storm, according to county officials. Of those, 305 suffered major damage and seven were destroyed. The total residential damage was estimated to be about $89 million, making Hermine one of the costliest disasters in Pasco County history.

While it was the Riveras' first bout with flooding, it was the second year in a row for some of his neighbors. The county thinks it might have a solution for property owners in areas that are particularly flood prone: Sell those homes to the county.

That idea is more practical than fixing the county's stormwater problem, said Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey. That would require spending $300 million to perform all the maintenance and improvements the county's drainage infrastructure needs.

"We have no idea where that money's coming from right now," Starkey said.

At current funding levels, she estimated those fixes would take 93 years.

But buying homes that regularly flood would be much cheaper and could be done far sooner. The process starts with applying next spring for a federal grant that could provide up to $4 million starting next fall.

"We believe that grant almost has Pasco County's picture next to it," said Kevin Guthrie, the county's emergency services director.

Pasco would be eligible for other federal grants if the federal government declares it a disaster zone. Guthrie said, based on the damage estimate, that should happen.

More than 160 homes in Pasco are on the National Flood Insurance Program's list of repetitive losses or severe repetitive losses. If the grant money arrives next year, county officials could approach those home­owners and others in areas like flood-prone Bass Lake and Elfers Parkway — most of whom, Guthrie said, don't have flood insurance — with an offer to buy them out. The county would then either let those properties return to their natural state or turn them into parks.

James Robbins, whose back door on Elfers Parkway is just a few feet from the Anclote River, would consider such an offer.

"It'd just make things a little easier," said Robbins, 34. "The only way to prevent flooding like this in the future is to raise (the house), and the cost of that would be more than the house is worth, probably."

His home took on 6 inches of water, but that's because Robbins ran a pump during the flooding. Without it, things would have been worse.

When he and his wife bought the home in January from his in-laws, he said people told them last year's flooding was an anomaly.

"Everyone told us the water only came up every 10 years," he said.

Other responses to such an offer were more succinct: No way. Rita Blair, 58, said she'd never sell her lot, which she said includes an old American Indian trading post from the 1800s.

Her house is raised and didn't take in any water. The only damage, she said, was to her outdoor washer and dryer and her lawn mower.

Before Blair owned it, she said, her mother lived on the property for 25 years and Blair wants to hand it down to her son.

"This property will stay in the family," she said. "I don't think it's (Starkey's) place to tell me where to live."

It wouldn't be the first time the county has purchased homes prone to flooding. Pasco has already purchased 13 homes with federal money from Tropical Storm Debby in 2012.

As for homeowners like Blair who don't want to sell, Guthrie said, grant money can also be used to elevate homes to make them flood-proof.

"We're trying to work with the homeowners so they're not victims again," Guthrie said.

There are no plans to take homes away using eminent domain, Starkey said.

The grant money the county hopes to win next year, though, can help only homeowners. Renters like the Riveras will have to rely on state and local aid if they get flooded. But they would be mostly left to fend for themselves.

The Riveras had one thing going for them, though: They left their old black Chevy Suburban in the front yard when they evacuated Saturday.

It started right up Wednesday, shooting water out of its tailpipe.

"It's alive!" said Jonathan, 8.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or Follow @josh_solomon15.