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Their Florida ‘paradise’ continues to flood, but some cannot afford a solution

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Hurricane Idalia made landfall last August about 200 miles north of the Jennifer Connell-Wandstrat neighborhood of St. Petersburg, Florida, but her ranch-style home was flooded with 10 inches of water that inundated her appliances, doors, dry walls and walls destroyed. floors and furniture. She still sleeps on a mattress on the living room floor with her youngest daughter.

Such an ordeal once seemed unlikely to ever happen again, at least in a resident’s lifetime. But Connell-Wandstrat has no illusions.

She lives in Shore Acres, a low-lying enclave on the edge of Tampa Bay, where the streets are wide, the houses are comfortable — and floodwaters have become a constant threat.

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“Now it’s a real fear,” said Connell-Wandstrat, whose home has been flooded twice in three years. “When is it going to happen next?”

The next massively damaging storm surge is only a matter of time, she and her neighbors know, especially as forecasters expect the hurricane season that started Saturday to be exceptionally busy. Experts predict there will be 17 to 25 named storms, including 4 to 7 that develop into major hurricanes with winds of at least 110 miles per hour.

Hurricane Idalia, while not as bad as other recent storms, flooded many neighborhoods far from the strong winds in downtown. As climate change leads to higher sea levels and more frequent and intense storms, many more Florida neighborhoods are expected to become vulnerable to flood risks. In Shore Acres, at least 1,200 of approximately 2,600 homes were flooded with Idalia; many flooded again during a December storm.

Dealing with that reality isn’t easy, and people in Shore Acres often answer questions from family members and friends asking why they stay.

Some have chosen to leave; There are ‘for sale’ signs on almost every block. Others raise or destroy their houses and rebuild on a higher level; imposing three-storey buildings now stand next to the older one-storey houses.

But many residents, like Connell-Wandstrat, cannot afford to demolish their homes or retreat. Even with significant equity in their homes — Connell-Wandstrat, a teacher whose husband died in 2018, has lived there for 22 years — it’s unlikely they’ll find another place they can afford in Shore Acres or a similar neighborhood, considering the value of real estate. and mortgage rates have risen.

“I’m here for the foreseeable future,” Connell-Wandstrat said.

The neighborhood is green and walkable, close to good schools and close to downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa, just across the bay. A large leisure center organizes community activities. A local Facebook group is incredibly active; after Hurricane Idalia, neighbors offered to do each other’s laundry and recommended reliable contractors.

Connell-Wandstrat, 51, bought Shore Acres because it struck her as a gem populated by doctors and lawyers, as well as teachers and nurses. However, the less well-off are more vulnerable: the neighborhood is shaped like a bowl, with the more modest homes low in the middle.

When some of those homes were built in the mid-20th century, the city could only recommend a certain increase, not require it, said Claude Tankersley, St. Petersburg’s public works administrator. With high tide flooding rapidly increasing in the Gulf of Mexico, parts of Shore Acres are taking on water even on sunny days. On a recent afternoon, puddles formed at both ends of Connell-Wandstrat’s block.

After Hurricane Idalia, residents urged the city to do more. St. Petersburg has since begun installing new equipment worth nearly $4 million to prevent saltwater from entering nearby drains, and more projects are planned.

Still, Tankersley said the ongoing projects were “a Band-Aid.” Everyone in Shore Acres knows the best solution short of leaving is to build higher, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a program to help, but applying is a lengthy process involving the city and state.

Since 1996, St. Petersburg, a city of about 260,000, has helped build 13 homes, Tankersley said, with another one currently being raised and 14 more in the pipeline.

“It’s scary to talk about such a drastic change as having to raise your home and the costs that come with it,” he said. “We realize this will take a long time.”

David and Barbara Noah paid several hundred thousand dollars to remodel their 2,100-square-foot home in 2019, 20 years after David Noah first bought it. Their home had never flooded, but their insurance continued to rise and the couple didn’t want to leave. Their house is now more than 5 meters above the ground.

“We get to stay in our neighborhood that we like and have lived in for 20 years and be essentially safe,” Noah said.

If they had kept the house at its original height of 4 feet, Noah estimated it would have absorbed 4 feet of water during Tropical Storm Eta in 2020 and perhaps as much as 4 feet during Hurricane Idalia last year. The morning after Idalia, the Noahs tried to help neighbors who were wading through waist-deep water and hoisting their belongings into trash bags. Barbara Noah said the experience made her uncomfortable.

“There’s that guilt factor,” she said. “It’s hard to see them go through it repeatedly in the time I’ve lived here.”

Since then, they’ve watched neighbors put their homes up for sale. David Noah said many of them moved in during the pandemic and may not have been prepared for life on the water.

“It’s really sad that people thought they were going to get this dream home in Florida, and then these storms hit,” he said.

Melissa Watson, 46, a surgical nurse, bought her cheerful blue house in 2021. She left Ohio for Florida in 2018 after surviving cancer and divorce. She had lost bids on 17 other homes before her offer in Shore Acres was accepted.

“I didn’t really understand the severity of the flooding that had happened in this area until I signed on the dotted line,” she said.

During Hurricane Idalia, more than five feet of water flooded her home, leaving Watson and her teenage son bouncing between friends’ houses, Airbnbs and hotels for eight months.

To repair the water damage, the insurance offered to pay $52,000 to $58,000; contractors told her the work would cost $65,000 to $75,000. She couldn’t afford to raise the house, but turned up her air conditioning and electrical outlets in anticipation of the next flood.

“My neighbors are selling. I have no neighbors across the street. There’s a monster being built right behind me,” she said. “I’m afraid of what this neighborhood will ultimately look like.”

Kevin Batdorf, the president of the Shore Acres Civic Association, has pushed city and state leaders to find more ways to keep residents in their homes. He said people were paid anywhere from $250,000 to $400,000, depending on square footage, to lift their homes and reconfigure the electrical and plumbing systems.

Batdorf, a real estate agent, said people are still buying in the neighborhood, if only to demolish and rebuild. He compared the situation to Tropical Storm Josephine, which flooded Shore Acres in 1996. Batdorf then walked through knee-deep water to make sure a house his clients wanted wasn’t flooded. The flooding did not bother the buyers.

“I wrote the contract in the water that day,” he said. “People like living here. It’s the convenience of where it is. It’s a paradise.”

In many ways, Connell-Wandstrat, a mother of four, remains in love with the neighborhood. “It’s getting up in the morning and smelling the air from the bay, getting a nice breeze,” she said. “It’s all the beautiful things about Florida.”

But two home floodings and 10 to 15 storm evacuations have left her chronically worried. For her children, Hurricane Idalia felt like a third traumatic event after the pandemic and the death of their father, who Connell-Wandstrat said became addicted to painkillers and overdosed after an injury.

Her 9-year-old has lost her bedroom furniture twice. Her 16-year-old has created an evacuation list on her cell phone. Her 19-year-old said goodbye to his father’s old comic books, which were covered in mold. Her 21-year-old was unable to move in due to limited space.

But as much as they might want the security of a higher life, the family’s memories are all in Shore Acres.

“Every baby I brought in came through the front door,” Connell-Wandstrat said. “Here they take their first steps. This is where our lives took place.”

She’s installed peel-and-stick tiles, stored important belongings in large plastic bins and made plans to hang up a prized piece of furniture — the chest of drawers that stood in her children’s bedroom when they were little — for the next time a storm comes.

c.2024 The New York Times Company