Now that Hurricane Idalia’s storm surge has retreated into the Gulf and bay from whence it came, hundreds of families are left to clean up the mess left in its wake.
Not only is it hard – and often expensive – work, but clearing sludge and debris also presents health and safety hazards. Luckily for area residents in need, a local nonprofit’s national office selected it to spearhead storm recovery efforts.
Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay’s (RTTB) mission is to repair homes, revitalize communities and rebuild lives. That makes the organization uniquely suited to provide free, immediate recovery assistance after a disaster.
“Our goal is to make their house safe and habitable,” said Brandy Canada, director of operations. “We are known for rehab work for low-income families that can’t help themselves.”
The organization supports the community from its Tampa headquarters and South St. Petersburg satellite office. Canada is grateful the area escaped the brunt of the storm but realizes many homeowners lack the resources or ability to mitigate flooding impacts.
RTTB is now accepting online applications for the first phase of a multi-pronged recovery plan. Much of that will include removing several inches of potential hazardous muck from flooded homes.
Another critical aspect is “gutting,” or removing wet drywall. State Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo urged residents to take precautions when dealing with both at a Pinellas County news briefing Aug. 31.
He noted that mold spreads quickly in flooded homes. Florida’s humidity exacerbates the problem.
Mold spores can cause allergic symptoms, and repeated exposure further weakens the immune system. That can lead to more severe effects, and Lodapo said residents should immediately remove wet drywall.
“There’s no saving it,” he added. “It will grow mold eventually.”
Canada urged affected homeowners to apply online for hurricane services. That link dominates the nonprofit and licensed general contractor’s landing page.
In addition to mucking and gutting, the organization will conduct chainsaw work, yard debris removal, roof tarping and address any time-sensitive needs. Canada explained that RTTB would continue helping the people it serves until the mission is complete.
“Once that’s done, we’ll go into short-term recovery,” she said. “Then, eventually, long-term recovery. Which can take five to seven years.”
The organization has repaired 461 homes across 16 counties in less than a year following Hurricane Ian. According to its website, RTTB has spent over $20 million repairing more than 2,500 homes since its inception in 2000.
RTTB is part of a network with 140 affiliates. While there are five Rebuilding Together chapters statewide, national leadership in Washington D.C. chose the local nonprofit to lead its Hurricane Ian, and now Idalia, recovery efforts.
Canada said RTTB set a goal last year to assist 1,000 hurricane victims by 2025. She now expects to surpass that mark by the end of the year and believes having that local resource “truly benefits everyone in the bay area.”
“If we can tarp their roof and make sure water isn’t pouring in overhead, we’re going to do that,” Canada added. “If the area’s been flooded and they need drywall cut out and mucking and gutting, we’re going to send a group of volunteers out to do that.
“We’re also here for the long term. We are in these communities – we’re embedded.”
While the organization subcontracts larger jobs, like replacing roofs, it relies on volunteers to help meet immediate needs. Those without construction skills can pick up a shovel or rake, toss trash in a dumpster or clear debris, Canada said.
Home Depot is RTTB’s most significant disaster recovery sponsor. Federal and municipal funding aids efforts to help low-income households.
While catastrophes necessitate additional corporate and private donors, Canada said the current priority is gathering volunteers. “I think it creates a sense of community for all of us to work together,” she said.
Canada explained that RTTB is directing a vast, national network with the civic spirit of a local nonprofit. She said people are already passing out food and filling “muck buckets” in some areas.
Despite coordinating Rebuilding Together’s hurricane recovery efforts, the Tampa Bay affiliate still assists St. Petersburg residents unaffected by Idalia. In April 2022, RTTB moved into a rebranded facility with Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties on the city’s south side.
Efforts to keep people in safe, sound and affordable homes continue during a catastrophe. Canada believes “there is a purpose for us (RTTB) being here, versus a national organization.”
“They don’t know the neighbors,” she added. “They don’t know the community. They don’t know who’s rich and who’s poor. They’re not embedded like we are.”
Homeowners can apply for hurricane assistance here.