Friday, November 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Weather

Your questions answered about Irma cleanup and damage assessment


Now that Hurricane Irma is gone, it's time to assess the damage and start the cleanup. Here are some questions people are asking, along with answers.


I evacuated ahead of Irma. I'm tired of living like a refugee. Can I go home now?

Maybe. The evacuation orders are being lifted in stages, so watch for the official announcement for your area. If you live in an evacuation zone, you may need to show deputies some identification before you're allowed back in. The bottom line here is to be patient and don't rush back. Take your time and wait for the official all clear.


There's standing water around my house. Can I go in?

That's a bad idea. If there is standing water next to the outside walls of your home, you won't be able to tell if the building is safe or structurally sound.


My house looks okay, but I smell something funny in the air. Is it okay to go in anyway?

No. Before you go in, walk carefully around the outside of your home and check for loose power lines and gas leaks. You will know there is leaking gas by the putrid, distinct odor that is added to gas to let people know gas is leaking. If you find downed lines or leaks, call your utility company.


What else should I check besides my windows and roof?

Check the foundation for cracks or other damage. Examine porch roofs and overhangs to be sure they still have all their supports. Look for gaps between the steps and the home. If you see obvious damage, have a building inspector check the home before you go in.


Irma's gone. Why are some areas still under emergency orders?

Because the rivers in those areas still haven't hit the crest of their flood stage. The rain from Irma is still swelling their flow, and so emergency orders in Hillsborough and other areas have been extended through Thursday.


My street's flooded and school is canceled. Is it okay to let the kids play in the water?

Only if you want them to get sick or bitten by a critter. Floodwaters can contain everything from floating balls of fire ants to swimming snakes to a variety of nasty diseases. The Washington Post recently noted that after Hurricane Katrina, the Centers for Disease Control "reported 30 cases of MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus bacterium, among a group of New Orleans evacuees sent to Dallas. And Vibrio pathogens, bacteria popularly described as 'flesh-eating,' sickened two dozen people and killed six. There were also scattered reports of skin rashes, from infections and heat, as well as red marks blamed on biting mites."


The flooding has receded where I live so I don't need these sandbags any more. Can I just dump them in my children's sandbox?

Bad idea if the sandbags came into contact with the floodwaters. That means they've soaked up the fecal bacteria and other waste that was in the flood. When you pick them up, wear gloves and boots. Contact your local landfill or emergency management office about where to dispose of bags. If you did not get any flooding, of course, they're fine, and you may want to hang onto them through the end of hurricane season Nov. 30.


My car got flooded. Is it safe to try starting it?

No. It's tempting to see if the car still works, but if there is water in the engine, you could damage it beyond repair. Instead, call your insurance company. You need to have your car towed to a mechanic.


A lot of stop lights are still out. What should I do when I get to an intersection where the light doesn't work?

Treat it like it's a four-way stop. Even then, be very cautious about driving through, because not everyone knows to treat it like it's a four-way stop. They may come barreling through as if there were no stop light at all.


When and where can I get gas?

The gas shortage that began before Irma will continue until ports and fuel trucks can resupply gas stations. As millions of evacuees return home, motorists should be prepared to see some stations continuing to run short. Your best bet is to look at stations off the main roads, but generally try to avoid driving. There are websites and apps that can help you locate gas stations that are open. Try


Are the bus services running again?

Some are, some aren't. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority says it resumed service as of Tuesday, but call 813-384-6367 to be sure before you go stand at a bus stop. Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority says it's resuming routes as drivers become available. Call 727-540-1900 to find out if the route you need is running again.


Are the airports open?

The St. Pete-Clearwater Airport re-opened Tuesday and will resume flights on Wednesday. Tampa International Airport officials planned to resume limited operations Tuesday with a gradual build-up to a full schedule in following days.


My tree is leaning but it's not down. Can I save it?

Maybe. Some fallen and leaning trees can be saved, as long as they can be propped back up. Trim broken branches, set the tree upright and firmly stake it down for support. Treat the tree as if it were transplanted by providing adequate water in the next six months. The Florida Extension Service recommends leaving the support stakes and hose-covered wires in place for a year. Prune or saw broken branches back to major limbs or the main trunk, always making clean, even cuts. If a crack or split extends into the trunk, the tree could be dangerous and may need to be removed. Also, inspect the root area of trees and shrubs for hollowing of the soil that can occur when plants are blown back and forth during a storm. Add soil and water to eliminate air pockets around roots.


I want to plant new trees. What trees should I avoid in case of another hurricane?

Jacarandas, though beautiful, are brittle. Also avoid Carolina laurel cherries and sand pines. Palms are good.


What should I do with all the debris in my yard?

Gather it up and place it where you normally put your trash and recycling bins, out by the curb. When trash service resumes, a crew will haul it away. If you can't wait for that, you or someone you hire can haul it all to a county-run brush site. Check your county's website for locations.


What do local governments do with all the trees and limbs that were knocked down?

They grind it into mulch, which is then available for use in landscaping.


I missed my normal recycling pickup because of the storm. Will there be a special pickup schedule?

A lot depends on when the recycling plant re-opens. For instance, St. Petersburg ran its recycling pickup Tuesday, even though its plant is still shut down.

Backup power

I'm one of the millions of utility customers without power. Is now a good time to buy a generator?

No. Stores that sold out of generators before Irma are still out of stock. The best time to buy a generator is before hurricane season starts. The worst is right before or after a hurricane.


Until my power goes back on, I'm running a generator inside my house. Is that safe?

Definitely not. Move that thing outside, pronto, or the exhaust fumes will kill you. Most generators put out more carbon monoxide than the average automobile. For the same reason, don't put it within 15 feet of your house if your windows are open. Wind can blow the fumes inside the house and make you sick or dead.


How soon can I get insurance money for my damages?

It depends on how fast you file your claim. Insurance companies generally handle them first come, first serve, so get yours in as quick as you can. But don't expect instant results because claims adjusters are still dealing with claims from Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Be sure to write down your claim number. Write down every contact with your insurer. Be sure you keep receipts for any expenses related to repairs. Here's a financial toolkit for Irma victims from the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau:


Am I eligible for federal assistance with my losses?

Probably. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's Individuals and Households Program provides financial help (up to $33,300) for housing needs (temporary housing, repair, and replacement construction) and personal needs (medical services, replacement of household appliances, other household items). If you've got power and Internet access, you can register for disaster assistance online at If you don't, then call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362). The toll-free telephone number will operate from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. EDT seven days a week until further notice. When you call or log on, you'll need to provide your Social Security number, daytime phone number, your current mailing address, the address and zip code of the damaged property (if it's different) and any private insurance information.


I've got questions about state assistance. Who can I call?

Start with the Florida Division of Emergency Management. You can reach them at 1-800-342-3557.


Some workmen at my door say they're with a utility crew and they need to check something inside my home. They don't have any ID. Should I let them in?

No, and call 911 right away. The day after a hurricane is the start of the scamming season in Florida. A 95-year-old woman in Boyton Beach lost nearly $13,000 in jewelry to some phony utility workers pulling that scam, according to that city's police department. Anyone who shows up at your door like that needs to show you some identification. Don't be fooled.


I've heard some wild rumors about some possible ripoffs going on connected to Irma. How can I check on whether that's true?

This being Florida, it's quite possible the rumors are true. Nevertheless, before spreading stories that aren't true, check FEMA's rumor control website:


I think I'm being overcharged for something I need to recover from Irma. Is that legal?

Nope. Price-gouging before and after a disaster is against the law in Florida. Report it by calling the state Attorney General's Office at 1-866-9-NO-SCAM.


A contractor is offering to repair my damage but he says he's saving me money by being unlicensed. Should I hire him?

Probably not. "Unlicensed" is often a synonym for ripoff artist. You run the risk of handing over all your cash and getting no work done. Check your county's website. Most have a list of licensed contractors.

Times staff writers Justine Griffin, Divya Kumar, Jim Verhulst, Mark Puente and Charlie Frago and senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.

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