Neighbors band together to clean up properties on Marla Lane following Hurricane Irma.
SEMINOLE – As Hurricane Irma ambled towards the Tampa Bay area last week, city leaders, staff and volunteers spent days readying Seminole to brace the storm that eventually hit Pinellas County as a Category 1 hurricane Sunday into Monday.
The storm initially hit Florida, first in the Keys, as a Category 4, and caused widespread damage throughout the state.
In Seminole, Irma littered tree limbs and debris throughout the city, and left many without power.
The City Council held an emergency meeting Sept. 7 to declare a state of emergency in Seminole before the storm hit.
City Manager Ann Toney-Deal told councilors that this declaration “waives certain regulations
[regarding] purchasing bids, hiring extra personnel, whatever it needs to keep our community safe and to address any issues that may come up that could not have been anticipated in advance.”
Councilors also authorized Toney-Deal to execute a participant agreement with the county for debris collection and removal services through AshBritt Environmental. The item originally was scheduled for consideration at the council’s next business meeting, but it was moved to the emergency meeting due to the impending storm.
The city has been under contract with AshBritt for debris removal for the past five years, Toney-Deal added. But the new contract, negotiated through the county, “addresses new requirements of [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] that we would have to document on our own if we were under our old contract,” she said.
Regular trash services will begin Friday, while Irma-related debris will be picked up starting next week.
Staff and volunteers were quick to help get the city up and running before Irma had even fully passed through the area.
John Bedner, a public works employee, said city staff began clearing debris beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday. Staff spent the night at the public works building, he added.
“We had our cots set up and spent the night hunkered down, waiting for the storm to pass, and then we got out there and just did what we had to do,” he said.
He expects the cleanup will last through the week.
“It’s scattered everywhere,” he said. “There are limbs falling everywhere, limbs hanging from trees. But the way they were talking, it was on its way to becoming catastrophic. So we were blessed.”
Seminole City Park was probably the hardest hit of all city-owned properties, he said. In addition to debris and tree limbs, a branch hit and shattered a light pole at the park.
“I can’t say enough about the city of Seminole management and staff, including public works, fire resuce, EMS, library, recreation, administration, community development and [Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office] deputies assigned to Seminole, [and] Community Emergency Response Team [CERT] members [who] helped staff the Emergency Operations Center,” said Mayor Leslie Waters.
Toney-Deal added, “City staff are all enthusiastically working around the clock to get their city back in shape. I am proud of their commitment to recovery efforts in Seminole.”
Springing into action
Once the storm passed, many councilors began touring the city and reaching out to the community to see where help was needed the most.
Councilor Trish Springer, however, was unable to drive off her property because of a fallen tree blocking the roadway.
So Tuesday, she hopped on her bike instead.
“I’m just riding around conserving gas,” she said. “My whole world is in a one-, two-mile radius – my home, work and schools.”
Springer, who lives close to Seminole City Center, visited local schools to see how they fared during the storm as well as businesses, friends and neighbors.
“It’s just nice to see everybody helping each other,” she said.
She added, “I hope I lose a ton of weight from biking around like this, because I am out of shape.”
Angie Mazzarese, who lives in Largo, decided to weather the storm at her parents’ house in Seminole and headed there Saturday evening. They eventually lost power Sunday night.
Luckily, the Seminole High School graduate and vice president of her family’s business, Quick & Easy Tax & Accounting, Inc. in Largo, discovered Monday morning that her own home still had electricity. Her business, however, did not.
With deadlines on her mind, she knew she needed to keep working despite the hurricane.
“I [had] to set up a makeshift office in [the] dining room as my office lost power and I have payrolls to run,” she said. “Luckily, the IRS has granted certain disaster areas a reprieve of the currently due deadlines, such as estimated 1040 payments, 1040 filing and business 941 payments due on [Sept. 15] until Jan. 31, 2018. I’m still running my business, just focusing on the more pressing items such as payrolls and sales tax.”
So she went to her office to collect all necessary papers and other items, and got to work at her dining room table despite the Tampa Bay area still being affected by the backend of Irma.
While her husband, St. Petersburg Police Officer Michael Christian, was on duty during the hurricane, Audra Christian, her two daughters – Jane, 11, who attends Seminole Middle School, and Chloe, 16, who attends Seminole High School – hunkered down at their home with another officer’s family.
“We refused to evacuate, being [third-generation] Florida natives,” Audra said.
She recalled 1985’s Hurricane Elena.
“It was pretty freaky,” she said. “The house breathed from the pressure. Lightning struck trees down in my neighborhood and [there was] tons of rain. Elena spun in the gulf for two days.”
As scary as that experience was, she knew she and her daughters would get through Irma just fine at home, though “the night was long [and] I didn’t sleep at all,” she said.
Still, it was an “awesome” experience for the family. Before the storm got bad, her daughters “dressed up as Hurricane Irma” and played outside. They also used their phones to create funny fake news reports.
“The kids spent time together and they actually got bummed when the power turned on. We played cards and actually talked,” she said.
Getting right to work
Cousins Cole Cicco, 13; Jake Cicco, 10; and Andrew Priebe, 8 took one look at the large tree that fell in the playground of Bay Pines Lutheran Church and School and decided to clear what they could Tuesday.
Their grandfather, David Priebe, is pastor at the church and lives nearby. Cole and Jake, who attended the school in the past, regularly mow the lawn at the property. Andrew is currently a fourth-grader at the school. They were staying with their grandfather because he still had power after the storm.
“We had to cut the grass [at the church] and we came up here and saw all this stuff,” Cole said. “We just saw the destruction and what happened to all the nice trees and we just wanted to make the church and school look as nice as it did before.”
While removing the massive tree trunk on their own was too big a job for the trio, they were able to remove smaller limbs and branches by using a small tractor and wagon.
Neighbors helping neighbors
Kadi Hendricks Tubbs, Tampa Bay Newspapers’ Mom 2 Mom columnist, is “proud” of how her neighborhood pulled together in Irma’s aftermath. Tubbs lives off Ridge Road and 102nd Avenue.
“It was great to see,” she said. “We had neighbors who evacuated and their yard was a mess and everyone cleaned their yard, too, and all the yards on the block.”
Around 20 residents of the area traveled house to house to help those who needed it.
Angie Canning, who evacuated with her husband and two children to Mississippi, said, “I thought really, that is so nice! We are very fortunate to have such great neighbors and friends.”
One older couple on Marla Lane had a large tree fall scattering tree limbs throughout their yard.
Their daughter, Linda Higgins, said, “I have never seen a group, the whole neighborhood converging on [an] elderly neighbor’s yard. The neighborhood is absolutely fantastic. I couldn’t have done [the cleanup] alone without the support of the neighborhood.”