As Shore Acres Rebuilds, a Community Learns and Grows
In 1972, Hurricane Agnes skirted the Tampa Bay area and made landfall near Apalachicola. Newspaper accounts of the flooding Agnes brought to Shore Acres might be mistaken for stories written about the impact of Hurricane Idalia, which followed a similar path at the end of August 2023. In both Agnes and Idalia, residents scrambled to find high ground for cars, appliances, and belongings. The high tide crested seawalls, came up storm drains, filled the streets, and then made its way into homes.
There are important differences between Agnes and Idalia, however. On the June night that Agnes swept past us toward the panhandle, city and county officials thought impact would be minimal. But the water rose, and residents were woken from their beds by police in their cruisers, announcing an emergency evacuation over loudspeakers. Many never heard the warning. Without today’s prediction models the water brought by Agnes was a surprise. Most of the homes were built in the post-war boom and hadn’t been there long enough to experience a major storm surge. By contrast, in 2023 residents expected the surge and many spent days filling sandbags, using plastic to create barriers along garages and doors, moving vehicles to higher ground, and preparing for the loss of power.
But no amount of Visqueen and sand can stop rising water indefinitely. As this issue prints, Hurricane Idalia is still a daily presence in many readers’ lives. More than 1,200 homes in Shore Acres were damaged by the flooding brought by a storm that some might say “missed” the Tampa Bay area; 82% of the storm damage in St. Petersburg was in Shore Acres.
Yet, in those hot, sweaty days of late summer 2023 emerged the defining quality of Shore Acres that goes beyond its curving streets and shimmering water: the neighborhood’s strong sense of community. It’s a sentiment repeated often as residents recount the hours and days that followed the arrival of Idalia.
Taylor and Tim Shallenberg live on Ohio Avenue with their two daughters. Their experience with rising water from Hurricane Eta in 2020 prepared them to mitigate the loss from Idalia. They evacuated their daughters to Taylor’s mother’s home and went about the business of moving their belongings off the floor and wrapping table legs in trash bags. “We even removed all the interior doors, not only to use them as tables, but also to avoid water damage,” Taylor said, recalling how expensive and time consuming it was to replace the doors in 2020.
With the kids safe with grandma, Tim and Taylor stayed to monitor the tides. When it came time to leave, an unlikely rescuer arrived: a neighborhood boy paddled up in his kayak and gave the Shallenberg’s elderly black Labrador, Riley, a ride to high ground. Keeping the door fortified against water seeping in, they used their living room window to get out. The time spent preparing paid off. Less than two months later, there’s little sign of the storm in the Shallenberg’s home. Tim is skilled in construction and his brother owns a busy handyman business.
Social media had a positive influence during Idalia, allowing residents to share information on water levels in real time. Those who evacuated relied on doorbell cameras and remote security systems to track flooding and power outages. Resident John Martin deployed a drone at the peak of the surge and shared the footage on the Shore Acres Civic Association (SACA) Facebook Page.
SACA Vice President Nicole Vinson has a special insight on how the storm affected the neighborhood. She calls herself a “hurricane lawyer,” specializing in representing the insured with National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and other property insurance claims. “My first day of law school was the day Hurricane Charley hit [in 2004],” she said, recalling the inspiration for her legal specialty. Pointing out the major difference between flood claims and other insurance claims she said, “NFIP cases are difficult from the legal perspective because it feels like an insurance case, but you’re suing the federal government. They have a different set of rules, and the requirements can change from year to year.”
Vinson took to the SACA Facebook page to give neighbors tips on how to prepare for a flood claim, and what kind of documentation they’d need in the event they had to pursue one. She was eager to point out that unlike most homeowners’ policies, NFIP does not offer assistance for alternate housing after a flood (FEMA stepped in to assist with this), and if your home has a second story, they expect you to move contents to the upper floor.
Vinson doesn’t know all this just because it’s her profession; she learned first-hand when her home flooded during Eta. She decided to rebuild a raised home, which is still under construction. Beyond sharing information on how to navigate the NFIP and FEMA bureaucracies she also organized a neighborhood-wide potluck and pool party to bring everyone together several weeks after the storm.
The story of Idalia plays out differently from house to house and street to street, as evidenced by the piles of soggy furniture and building materials that lined some streets and not others. Storms like Idalia reveal weaknesses in infrastructure and Florida’s insurance market, and shine a light on old mistakes in neighborhood design. Reflecting on Agnes, the 1972 St. Petersburg Times recalled the 1920s real estate boom when “any land dry enough to walk on was dry enough to sell.” The paper noted Shore Acres’ saucer-shaped contours left many waterfront homes dry, while homes and streets in the middle of the neighborhood were underwater. It wasn’t until 1954 that the city required new plats to be 6.5 feet above mean sea level and streets at 5.5 feet; a level still susceptible to frequent flooding, but higher than much of what was dredged in the 1920s. Older lots were exempt from the 1954 rules. Over the years, however, the city has made numerous improvements to drainage systems to battle issues that were built into the neighborhood’s layout.
Another factor in the amount of damage some residents suffered was due to the wake caused by vehicles attempting the streets of Shore Acres. Drivers might be forgiven for moving quickly to avoid stalling, but it causes water to get pushed into otherwise undamaged places. Taylor Shallenberg caught a white truck on video, avoiding the deepest water in the street by driving over the sidewalk and through her front yard. The driver caused a wave that buckled her garage door and toppled tables containing thousands of dollars of tools that were previously high and dry. To prevent further damage, they worked with neighbors to direct traffic away from the flooded street.
And finally, while many Shore Acres residents were prepared to lose power, most didn’t realize the insidious effect that saltwater has on electrical systems. In a heartbreaking series of events, when the power was restored, the conductive properties of saltwater caused a half dozen fires, destroying several homes.
As the cleanup from Idalia commenced, the St. Pete community beyond Shore Acres responded. Donation drives produced everything from bleach to diapers. Restaurants and food trucks including Jay Luigi, Longhorn Steakhouse, Fo’Cheezey, Kona Ice, Santa Fe Sausage Company, and The Slammer Shop came in to serve residents free food. The Gathering Church made and delivered meals throughout the area. Magic 94.9 set up a tent accepting and distributing donations and handing out free food. American Signature Furniture offered 20% off for Shore Acres residents. The City of St. Pete offered a free Saturday camp at the Rec Center so parents could get work done on their day off, and the city made it legal to “driveway camp” in RVs and trailers.
Storms have had a way of bonding the Shore Acres community. As people pause from their work to have a free sandwich, they meet neighbors they’ve lived near, but never known. Soon they’re loaning tools and equipment, sharing information, and making recommendations on reputable professional work. Vinson described the way the neighborhood has supported one another: “I have dozens of new connections. I was blown away by how amazing every neighbor was to everyone and the amount of resources people shared. Everyone was in it together. There was an amazing community effort that you think would be in a Hallmark movie. People who had their own problems were helping others.”
Food trucks and potlucks aren’t just post-storm activities around here. And it’s part of why people rebuild and stay. A few “For Sale, As Is” signs popped up after the storm, resulting in quick cash sales where new homes will be built above flood levels. That’s one solution to a problem that no drainage system or seawall can fix. But most show a keen interest in staying in a community they love. Residents gathered at the “Raise Up Forum” at the Shore Acres Rec Center, to learn how to access federal money for lifting homes above flood level. (The Power Point presentation is available at rivierabay.org.) Another forum discussed other mitigation techniques, such as products like water-repellent cabinets and flooring (which the Shallenbergs used successfully after Eta) and waterproof drywall.
From Agnes to Idalia, Shore Acres has proven to be a resilient community where neighbors take care of each other. With each storm, lessons are learned, and improvements are made to reduce the risk in future storms. Whether raising homes above flood level, or razing homes and building higher, the community endures, not despite the water, but in part because of it. And that kind of solidarity is hard to beat.