In Case You Missed It: Volunteers flow into Pasco to assist cleanup of flood-damaged homes

Volunteers flow into Pasco to assist cleanup of flood-damaged homes
Tampa Bay Times
Samantha Schmidt
August 17, 2015

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Rich Selig hummed gospel music as he removed damaged bathroom cabinets from a home.

The 68-year-old Pinellas Park resident was volunteering through Samaritan’s Purse, one of five disaster-relief crews deployed this week to Pasco County to help remove debris from flood-damaged homes.

Flooding due to heavy rainfall during the past several weeks has destroyed 46 homes and damaged more than 300 across Pasco County, prompting Gov. Rick Scott to sign a state declaration of emergency for the county.

More than 50 volunteers from Florida and other states are involved in the countywide debris removal, which began Monday, said Ken Skalitzky, emergency management director for Volunteer Florida, the umbrella network coordinating the effort.

Selig was one of about 30 people volunteering in Pasco through Samaritan’s Purse, a North Carolina-based Christian organization that provides international disaster relief. Many of the organization’s volunteers, including Selig, came from Calvary Chapel in Pinellas Park, a church that has partnered with Samaritan’s Purse since 2003.

“It’s a calling,” said Selig, 68, a black bandana tied around his head. “You’re being Christ for somebody.”

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Other organizations providing work crews for the debris removal include Sheep Dog Impact Assistance, Team Rubicon, NECHAMA Jewish Response to Disaster and Florida Baptist Disaster Relief.

Selig and the other Samaritan’s Purse volunteers removed up to 4 feet of dry wall from the home on Mexicali Street in New Port Richey, pulling out nails from the wooden frame and vacuuming debris. Piles of furniture, toys and other belongings filled the garage and driveway.

The homeowners, James and Anna Williamson, said their entire two-bedroom, two-bathroom house was flooded with 6 to 8 inches of water during the first wave of flooding in late July. Then, the home flooded again on Aug. 3.

They will have to replace kitchen and bathroom cabinets, floors, dry wall and about $12,000 worth of furniture and personal belongings. Their 4-year-old daughter, Lily, lost all of her Disney princesses in the flood, but her parents haven’t had the heart to tell her yet, said James Williamson, 32. Luckily, her Elsa castle from the movie Frozen was stored high enough to avoid the floodwater, her mother said.

The family has been living with relatives and friends for the past few weeks, most recently with James Williamson’s parents in Dade City — an hourlong commute to take their daughter and 2-year-old son, James, to day care and preschool in the New Port Richey area.

When their home was flooded during Tropical Storm Debby in 2012, the family had to pay $5,000 for a work crew to simply remove the debris from their home, James Williamson said. This year, they didn’t have the money to pay for the same services. After several days of trying to rid his house of debris on his own, James Williamson learned that Samaritan’s Purse would be arriving.

“It’s a huge help,” Williamson said. “Getting everything out is the hardest part.”

Mike Wingo and Bruce Button, chaplains from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, traveled from North Carolina to provide spiritual support to Samaritan’s Purse volunteers and flood-affected residents in Pasco County. The chaplains have been deployed to disasters such as Hurricane Sandy and the conflict in Ferguson, Mo., last year, they said.

About noon on Monday, Wingo, 59, asked James Williamson if he would like to pray. He put his arm around the homeowner, asking God to encourage him and give him hope.

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Meanwhile, Joel Van Order, 51, carried 2 by 4 planks of wood out of the house.

The Pinellas Park resident lived in New Orleans before moving to Florida in 1987. After seeing the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, he wished he could have done something to help in the relief effort. Responding to the flooding in Pasco County seemed like the perfect opportunity to provide a similar service, he said.

Anna Williamson walked through the home, thanking the six volunteers for their assistance.

“It means a lot,” Anna Williamson said, her eyes filling with tears. “You guys have definitely been a blessing.”