Local News

Woman's house lost to mold

LAKE PLACID - "She helped everybody out," Raul Reyes said Tuesday. His sister, Luz Mercedes de Sanchez, was a Girl Scout leader. "She took them all over country. She helped everybody. But nobody is helping her out. It's a shame." Sanchez owns one of the houses on Ixora Street, less than two miles from downtown. The street was flooded by 40 inches of spring and summer rains. Sandbags didn't stop floodwaters from a pond across Rebel Avenue from seeping into her yard, then into the front and back doors. Mold has taken over. Her brother wouldn't go in her house without a bandana across his nose and mouth. "You can get sick from the mold," Reyes said. Thick and black, spores have spotted the walls. Now they're growing fuzz.
Sanchez, who was disabled by two heart attacks, is living with a daughter in Montgomery, N.Y. She has written to County Commission Chair Jack Richie, Highlands County Administrator June Fisher, Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney. Her insurance company won't help either. "I had no flood insurance," said Sanchez, 62, a former bank teller who had the house built in 1991. "I'm in a no-flood zone. They told me 'Call FEMA,' and they said the county must declare it a disaster for any help. Now I'm paying for insurance, taxes and mortgage on a home I can't live in." Although it is lower than both streets, Reyes said the house didn't flood after several hurricanes. A half block east on Ixora, stepfather Louis Bonilla has been luckier. His house is several inches higher than Sanchez, but a yellow ring around the white stucco shows the flood water rose six inches. That submerged the porch, but water didn't get inside the home because it's a half-step higher than the porches. Even so, he still can't live in there because the septic drain field remains under water. Sanchez and Reyes think her house flooded because Rebel Avenue has been raised. "They've made that road so big," Sanchez said. "I feel like that had a lot to do with my house being flooded. The pond flooded." County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete said the pond probably flooded Sanchez's yard. "I'm not going to tell you that the road might not be one and a half or two inches higher because of the blacktop," Gavarrete said. "But in fact, if it had been lower, her house would have been flooded worse." Sanchez has been told that the county will condemn her house and might bulldoze it. That's possible, said Building Inspector S.Y. Mosley. "If it's full of mold and there's a health reason to condemn it, they would have to remove the drywall and certify it was clean," Mosley said. After a contractor certifies it is mold free, new drywall could go up. But first, the code enforcement office must receive a complaint about the property. A special hearing would be conducted before a magistrate, and the owner would be given a chance to remove the mold. If not, the county could have the property condemned. Then, if the owner doesn't remove the structure, the county could and place a lien on the lot. U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, is unable to help, said Communications Director Michael Mahaffey. "We are aware of this problem. Right now, it's not a federal issue, so our hands are tied. If that changes - for example, if the county or state were to declare a state of emergency and get FEMA involved - then we'd stand ready to assist however we could." According to the American Red Cross, eight Highlands County families have accepted help. "It's a heartbreaking situation, to hear how they've had to move out of their homes because of the flooding," said Commissioner Don Elwell, who represents the Lake Istokpoga district where Sanchez lives. "It's frustrating to me as a public official. But we can't use public tax dollars to help one resident." "I don't know what to do any more," Sanchez said. "It's too much for me. It hurts a lot." gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828