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Tampa church is refuge of last resort for family fleeing second hurricane

Abigail Feliz and her family evacuated to Tampa after surviving Hurricane Harvey’s flooding in Houston. Then came Irma and a trek to Hyde Park Presbyterian Church.
Abigail Feliz and her family evacuated to Tampa after surviving Hurricane Harvey’s flooding in Houston. Then came Irma and a trek to Hyde Park Presbyterian Church.
Published Sep. 15, 2017

TAMPA — For Abigail Feliz and her family, the Hyde Park Presbyterian Church on Swann Avenue is the latest stop in a tour of misery that began the night the rains came to Houston.

"We lost everything there during Hurricane Harvey," said Feliz, 38, as she stood in the hot sun outside a shelter from the ravages of Hurricane Irma. "The water started coming in. The kids were screaming, so we jumped in the car and came to Tampa."

The original plan, said Feliz, a therapist who works with diabetic patients and is 14 weeks pregnant, was to stay with friends on Palm River Road in Tampa.

But then came Irma. And the rains and the wind. Her children, 11, 2 and 1, started screaming again as the water rose ankle deep inside the home. So Feliz and her husband, Michael, packed up the family and went to a hotel. But after three days, the money ran out. They reached the Red Cross and were told to come to Hyde Park Presbyterian.

Through emergency services available at the church, Michael Feliz was able to land a temporary job in a local warehouse from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. He was sleeping in the shelter Friday afternoon before starting his next shift, though rest here is a challenge.

There's a roof and food and water, Feliz said, but during the night, there was a woman screaming for her dead husband, another talking loudly to an imaginary friend, and someone who grabbed Feliz's ankle in the dark.

All the while, the family is camped out in a hallway near the restroom. People parade by their cots all night. The lights go on. The noise gets loud.

"It's stressful," she said. "But I have to stay strong for my family. I can't let them see me be afraid, even though I am torn up inside."

Adding to their problems is that because they did not have property in Tampa that suffered damage, they are not eligible for relief funds here. Representatives from the federal agency visited the church Friday afternoon to take claims information.

But the family left Houston before applying for FEMA help there and learned from the officials in Tampa that applying in Houston now will mean a longer wait.

Susan Shaw, a disaster relief worker for the American Red Cross, said the organization is doing what it can for people at Hyde Park Presbyterian and across Hillsborough County.

"We don't turn anyone away," Shaw said.

The Red Cross still is helping about 90 people across the county, including the 30 staying Thursday night at the church.

Kurt Jensen, a Red Cross disaster mental health worker who came from Cleveland to help, said kids like the Feliz children have an especially tough time because their world has been upended.

"They can't go to their school," he said. "They can't play with their friends. They don't know when they will go home."

So he does what he can, providing mental health first aid, counseling and advice.

"These are tough conditions," he said.

Tough for the church, as well. Hyde Park Presbyterian is not equipped as a homeless shelter and the pastor, the Rev. James Friesen, worries what will happen to people like the Feliz family, who fall through the cracks of services offered.

"This is a 100-year-old building," Friesen said. "We are happy to help, but there is only so much 100-year-old plumbing can handle."

Shaw said she doesn't yet know when the relief effort here will wrap up.

Meanwhile, Abigail Feliz waits.

"I don't know what will happen next," she said. "I don't know where we will go."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.