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'This was one flood too many.' Rubonia residents still recovering eight weeks after Hurricane Idalia

A flooded neighborhood street with mailbox in foreground.
Luther Wilkins
Rubonia sits just south of the Sunshine Skyway alongside Terra Ceia Bay.

The historically black community in Manatee County has experienced persistent flooding for years. The August hurricane brought more than three feet of storm surge to the neighborhood.

As he navigates his walker along a cracked driveway, Morris Goff takes visitors inside the home his parents bought nearly 70 years ago. 

"Let me walk you through, right quick,” he said. “My sister's here, she's the caretaker of it. She and my brother." 

Goff and his eight siblings were born and raised in Rubonia, a low-lying community located along Terra Ceia Bay. He says it’s not unusual for water to flow through the neighborhood after a storm, but Idalia brought the worst flooding he's ever seen. 

"The water was coming up out out of the grates out there like it was a fountain,” he said." 

A 25-mile an hour street sign on a flooded street.
Luther Wilkins
The greatest impact to Manatee County from Hurricane Idalia was from storm surge, according to a preliminary impact report released by the National Weather Center in Ruskin.

Recovering from storm surge

Despite Hurricane Idalia making landfall well to the north, the effects of its storm surge are plainly evident across coastal Manatee County.

Residents in Rubonia, a historically black community that is prone to flooding, saw a storm surge of more than three feet.

Storm surge is created primarily by the wind pushing water onshore. So, if a storm is moving slowly, it has an opportunity to push more water onto the coastline, and push it farther up into bays and estuaries.

Even eight weeks after the hurricane, residents in Rubonia are still recovering.

At the Goff home, the water's force caused a big crack on the floor and many of the rooms remain mostly bare.

"It's a four-bedroom house and we had to take all of what was left of the furniture and put it out," Goff said. "Either the county picked it up or some of the neighbors who thought they'd like molded furniture; they took it.”

There are about 180 small single-family homes in Rubonia. Many of its original residents were freed slaves, or their descendants.

They came to Manatee County beginning in the 1920s to work as migrant farmers — and the community provided a rare opportunity for Black families to pursue home ownership. 

A black and white family photo with Black parents and their 9 children
Morris Goff
The Goff family of Rubonia, a historically Black community in Manatee County.

Many of those homes have been passed down through several generations. 

Luther Wilkins, president of the NAACP in Manatee County, says about 30 of them won't withstand another storm and it’s time to fix the aging homes for good. 

"There is no foundation on these homes, so when it floods or if you pull up the floors, you looking at dirt," he said.

Community rallies to help residents

Wilkins says the local chapter of the NAACP along with the Manasota Black Chamber of Commerceand church groups are coming together to help residents of Rubonia. 

Some elderly owners of community don't have insurance and initial assessments from FEMA won't be enough to cover the extensive repairs needed. So, the federal agency has provided a waiver for local groups to begin repairs on their own, Wilkins says.

A green trash truck parked on a street. Discarded households items are on sidewalk.
Manatee County Government
Many residents of Rubonia had to discard household items after storm surge from Hurricane idalia flooded homes.

That's good news for Rubonia resident Linda Lassiter, who is the caretaker for her 93-year-old mother. 

"My mom is elderly; she wants to stay in her house,” she said. “We're trying to make it livable again because she's 93 and I don't want her to spend these days in a flood house that's full of mold." 

As Lassiter combs through a life's worth of papers and photographs, clothing and furniture remain in the garage where a faint smell of mold still lingers. 

"I think we got about three/four hundred gallons of water out of this house even though the water had receded. It was still in here,” she said. “I say this was one flood too many." 

Manatee County government recently completed a $4 million dollar project to improve stormwater drainage in Rubonia.

But there's no changing the fact that the community sits below sea-level.

Disasters and racial inequity

According to a new studypublished in the journal Nature Climate Change, flood risk in the U.S will increase by about 25% in the next three decades. And Black communities are expected to face disproportionate harm.

The NAACP recently signed an agreement with the FEMA to work together to build equity in its disaster preparedness and response efforts across the country.

The Goff family of Rubonia with Luther Wilkins of the NAACP Manatee County.
The Goff family of Rubonia with Luther Wilkins of the NAACP Manatee County.

Back at the Goff home, help cannot come soon enough for Mary Goff who moved back home from Atlanta several years ago to take care of her ailing mother. 

"And her last word was, take care of my home,” she said. “I stayed. Went to work on the home." 

Goff says she paid for $30,000 worth of renovations on the family home that finished three weeks before Hurricane Idalia. 

"Then the storm came, like a hit in the gut and I can't get rid of the smell of the water,” she said. “And I got to start all over." 

An initial assessment from an independent contractor hired by FEMA estimated the damage to the Goff home at just $7,000. The family is appealing and has hired their own assessor.

The Manatee County chapter of the NAACP says it working to find contractors and others who are willing to pitch in and help residents of Rubonia rebuild their homes in the coming weeks.

Florida homeowners and renters in 18 counties, including Manatee County, who had uninsured losses caused by Hurricane Idalia have until Nov. 29 to apply forFEMA disaster assistance.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.