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Along the Alafia River, the grateful extend a hand to the Irma-sodden weary (w/video)

LITHIA

The things that make a house a home dried in the afternoon sun Thursday in a front yard on Williams Street.

Stuffed toys, kitchen chairs, ornaments and a photograph album lay near rotting timber and roofing insulation.

Inside the empty structure, Pastor David Whitten ripped out drywall left sodden by near-record flooding along the Alafia River in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Volunteers from his FishHawk Fellowship Church hauled out debris.

The home and the heartache belonged to others, but the church people shouldered it anyway, not waiting for the government to step in.

"You can see we're the only ones here," Whitten said. "But that's okay. It's what communities are for."

This Irma-help brigade was 260 strong last weekend. Up to 100 others from nearby churches and neighborhoods planned to descend again this weekend.

Whitten said he knows some flood victims have reached out to the Red Cross and FEMA, which have been touring the area, but he also knows his volunteers can be a little more nimble.

Cleanup is sobering and sometimes unpleasant. Dust masks are needed in some homes. Volunteers spray exposed wooden studs with mildew remover and disinfectant.

"It's not easy work," said Corey Duncan, the church's mission pastor who is organizing the volunteer effort.

Official help is on the way, too.

On Thursday, FEMA opened a seven-day-a-week disaster recovery center in Riverview for people to make damage claims. About 50 residents arrived on the first day, said spokesman Keith St. Clair, and hundreds are expected this weekend.

The agency does not repair homes but can pay for repairs and temporary housing, including offering hotel vouchers. Across Florida, FEMA so far has authorized $384 million for victims of Irma.

Some of the Alafia River homes were so isolated by floodwaters that representatives had to delay visiting them until recent days.

Almost two weeks after the river flooded, life is still a long way from normal for most victims.

Piles of ruined possessions and building materials await collection in the right of way of nearly every home.

And many residents are still trying to empty and repair residences.

That may not even be an option for Justin Lyons.

Floodwaters saturated his wood home on River Drive, even reaching into the ceiling timbers. This week, volunteers from FishHawk Fellowship told him his home probably can't be saved.

He has no insurance.

Inside, stained saucepans sit on a flood-damaged stove. A pillow is caked in mud.

Since the flood, he has been sleeping in the home on an air mattress. He keeps the windows open to avoid breathing mold but he has been sniffling and coughing.

He isn't ready to give up on the home that he shares with his mom, who is staying at a hotel.

"This is where I grew up, where I learned to play catch," he said. "You hurt so bad. You don't expect it. It's so surreal."

His river home gave his life peace and stability.

There is little of that anymore. He misses it.

"Right now," he said, "everything is scattered to the wind."

His neighbor Frank Rodriguez was luckier. His stilt home stayed dry. He lost only some tools that were washed away.

The residence, built by a former University of South Florida environmental science professor, is about 25 feet above ground. He bought the home in 2008.

"She did her homework," he said. "We're very fortunate."

Code enforcement has been through the neighborhood, plastering bright orange "unsafe" placards on many homes.

The notice does not prevent residents from staying but it requires them to obtain permits for electrical and building repairs, said Robin Caton, project manager for Hillsborough Consumer and Veterans Services.

"We never want to cause any family to be displaced," he said, "but their safety is always paramount to us."

Some residents would forgo the orange signs for something useful, like big roadside trash bins that appeared after other large floods but have not yet arrived. Caton said the county's solid waste department is compiling a list of homes that suffered substantial damage.

"We're still in recovery phase," Caton said. "They will be out to assess what the needs are in the community."

Not all flood victims are asking for help. On his own, Steve Wcislo has been ripping out drywall and sodden flooring and power-washing the screen room below his living quarters.

The retired oil refinery worker's home is eight feet above the ground but still took in about two feet of water.

FEMA initially told him they could not come out because his home was inaccessible.

He estimates that if he hired someone, repairs would cost about $30,000. He plans to do most of the work himself but will ask FEMA for help to cover the costs.

"I'll just do what I can with what I can," he said.

On Thursday, the cleanup crew helped Brian Hood clear debris from his yard on Cocoanut Cove Place. One fallen tree trunk needed a tug-of-war-like effort with five volunteers and Hood straining to drag the log to the curbside.

Every stop for the volunteers brings a new encounter with neighbors overwhelmed by the upheaval and damage from the flood but uneasy about accepting help from strangers.

"People are distraught," said Duncan. "Some swallow their pride and are willing to receive help because they know they need it."

Many of those who volunteered are from River Hills, a subdivision just a few hundred yards from flooded homes but located on the dry side of Lithia Pinecrest Road.

"What separated us from them was just a road," Duncan said. "It touched some people's hearts and they wanted to come out and help."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.


Federal assistance

A FEMA disaster recovery center has opened at the Regent, a satellite location of Hillsborough Community College, 6437 Watson Road, Riverview. Hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

Victims of Hurricane Irma are urged to register before visiting the center. Register online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or call the FEMA Helpline at (800) 621-3362.

Federal assistance

A FEMA disaster recovery center has opened at the Regent, a satellite location of Hillsborough Community College, 6437 Watson Road, Riverview. Hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

Victims of Hurricane Irma are urged to register before visiting the center. Register online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or call the FEMA Helpline at (800) 621-3362.

     
             
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