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Outpouring of support and aid leaves Alafia flood victims surprised, emotional

VALRICO — When the floodwaters came at 3 a.m. Tuesday, high ground for Amber Horton was the Shell gas station on Lithia Pinecrest Road.

After escaping through waist-high water, she waited out the night lying on a concrete floor with some of her neighbors. Others slept in the carwash.

She was back at the gas station Wednesday, but this time bacon and eggs were sizzling on a huge outdoor grill, and cases of water, bagels and cans of food were stacked on folding tables.

Shocked at the devastating flooding that has left dozens of residents with virtually uninhabitable homes, volunteers and local groups have turned the gas station at the intersection of Lithia Pinecrest and Rose Street into a staging area for a community-led relief effort.

The scene is akin to a mini-FEMA operation. Along one side, a line of tables is stacked with free food, water, soda and coolers. Around the rear of the gas station are piles of donated clothing. Trucks stacked with donations from food pantries are parked nearby to refill supplies.

Throughout the day, people who are still without power were ferried to CrossFit for Glory, a Fishhawk Ranch gym that had agreed to open its doors so people could get their first shower in days using donated towels, shampoo and soap.

A spaghetti dinner was planned for Wednesday evening with 100 hungry people expected.

The outpouring of support from affluent planned neighborhoods like Fishhawk Ranch has shocked and surprised residents of the flood-prone area around the Alafia River, who are used to relying only on one another.

"We feel so much better," said Horton, 34, who had just showered for the first time since her trailer was flooded. "It was hellish to see people you've grown up with sleeping on concrete and all huddled up together."

Much of the operation was put together by Seeds of Hope, a Lithia nonprofit run by volunteers. Some flood victims teared up as they tried to express their gratitude for the unexpected aid.

"These people are used to looking after themselves and each other," said Leda Eaton, Seeds of Hope president. "They have never had other people look them in the eye, tell them that they are sorry and ask how can we help."

Manna on Wheels, a Dover-based food ministry, has also been supplying food and other necessities. Many helping out are high school students, who don't return to school until Monday.

Newsome High School senior Maddie McAneny was on food duty, giving out supplies and unloading them from trucks.

"It's been great how the community has come together and donated so much," she said.

Many donations are from Seeds of Hope's food bank at the Presbyterian Church of Bloomingdale, on Bloomingdale Avenue.

On Wednesday, volunteers sorted through cans of green beans, tuna and soup to see what can be sent to Lithia. The church may move its Sunday service outdoors to accommodate the effort, said Jennefier Patterson, the food bank director.

"This started out with two or three people and turned into a full relief effort," Patterson said.

For Wednesday night, Eaton is planning to provide tents for residents still unable to return home. She is looking for someone to provide a portable toilet.

She is aware, however, that the toughest days may still be ahead for flood victims whose homes may need rebuilding.

Amy Malcom visited the aid site Wednesday. The RV that the 45-year-old lives in with her boyfriend and two sons is water-damaged. A tarp is the only thing keeping one wall intact, she said.

Her family stayed Tuesday night in a friend's room but they need a long-term solution.

"I don't know what to do,'' she said."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

     
 
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