By DOTTY NIST, photos courtesy of Walton County Public Information Office
“This is going to be a long term operation,” Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) Chairman Bill Chapman said of repair and recovery efforts in the wake of the inclement weather that had brought severe flooding to the county during the last week of April.
With a local state of emergency already declared and response well underway, the BCC met in emergency session on May 1 to get updates from staff and consider additional action in response to recent flooding and related damage in many areas of the county.
Walton County Administrator Larry Jones commented that staff had taken the liberty of declaring a state of emergency on April 30 in response to the situation, due to a number of the commissioners being away at the time in Washington, D.C., and inability of the BCC to therefore hold an immediate meeting. The commissioners had been in the capital to meet with legislators.
Jones said the staff action had been taken with the understanding that the BCC would be asked to meet the following day to ratify the declaration.
Walton County Attorney Mark Davis said he had been consulted and spoke in support of the action. He expressed appreciation to staff for moving quickly to coordinate response to the situation, holding two emergency meetings on April 30.
Davis recommended that the commissioners ratify the declaration of local state of emergency and extend it for seven days. A motion to do so carried with all aye votes from the four commissioners present.
Jones praised communication between staff and BCC during the incident, calling it “exemplary.”
District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld expressed appreciation to county staff, along with law enforcement, fire, and EMS personnel and others who had pitched in to address the emergency, “as overwhelming as it is.”
More than 70 roads countywide had become flooded on April 30 after a large low-pressure system moved into the area, bringing gusty wind and heavy, sustained, rain.
Chapman commented that probably no district had not suffered impacts. Much remains to be done, he emphasized.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander highlighted Walton County Public Works’ personnel’s efforts, noting that they had been working in affected areas for 48 hours straight.
Russell Beaty, Walton County emergency management director, reported that the previous night six National Guard high-water vehicles had arrived in Walton County. Three of those units were immediately deployed to previously-inaccessible areas in south Walton County, he said, including Cypress Breeze, Driftwood, and Point Washington.
The other three vehicles had been deployed north of the bay earlier in the day to Shoal River Plantation, the Eight Mile area, and Natural Bridge, Beaty commented.
He explained that National Guard personnel would be getting in contact with residents of those areas to determine what their needs were and arrange for assistance.
Beaty said emergency management would also be sending trucks into the Bunker and Steelefield communities and to Joe Dugger Road East and West, where there had been severe washouts, a CHELCO vehicle stuck, and it had not been possible to reach nine homes.
He reported that half a dozen residents had been housed at South Walton High School on April 30, with those people having now been transferred to other accommodations, with the shelter staying open until midnight in case needed by other residents, then closed down.
Beaty said half a dozen homes in the Spotted Dolphin Drive neighborhood in south Walton County had lost power due to the storm but that power had since been restored by CHELCO.
He told the commissioners that he had requested damage assessment from the state and FEMA for individual and public assistance—but that he expected that those agencies would begin with assessments on worse-impacted areas to the west before beginning the process in Walton County.
Beaty gave credit to the people “in the field,” Walton County Public Works, Walton County Fire Rescue, South Walton Fire District (SWFD), Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), and Florida Florida Service personnel, for “stepping up to the plate tremendously” during the emergency.
Beaty commented that it appeared that the impacts of this incident were greater than those of the summer 2013 flood event, even though the amount of rain was about 10 inches less, with Santa Rosa Beach receiving about 14 1/2 inches.
The 2013 event had resulted in about 40 roads being flooded countywide.
The difference, Beaty noted, was that this time the rain had fallen in a short time period.
He reported two instances of collapse of structures in connection with this year’s flood event, in connection with two buildings at opposite ends of CR-30A. One building affected was a home, the other a townhouse on which an exterior wall was undermined. In addition, Beaty said, the WCSO was contacted by a citizen about impacts to the Edgewater Beach condominium in Miramar Beach. He explained that an examination by the WCSO and SWFD revealed the building to be structurally unsafe and that 35 residents were evacuated.
The commissioners viewed photographs of affected areas and damage, with staff providing information on the locations of the photos.
Some of the photos showed impacts on the county’s ongoing bridge replacement project at Oyster Lake. Jones commented that the project contractor had been scheduled to remove the old pipes from the lake causeway but that the pipes had been pulled out by the storm. Walton County Public Works Director Wilmer Stafford said 15,000 cubic yards of sand at the Oyster Lake outfall that had been associated with the project had been lost when high water ran over a temporary wall holding the sand in place, causing the wall to cave in. Jones reported that county engineering consultants been in contact with the state Department of Environmental Protection in an effort to get that project back on track.
Stafford expressed concern about flooding in private communities that personnel had not been able to address. Davis noted that, now that a local state of emergency had been declared, it will be permissible for public works to take equipment onto private roads and driveways on an emergency basis in order to provide relief to the residents of those communities.
Jones urged all departments to provide support and resources to public works with tasks associated with repair and recovery from the storm.
Brian Kellenberger, Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) director of beach operations, reported no damage sustained at the TDC’s regional beach accesses, with the exception of minor soffit tear out on buildings as a result of wind. He reported minor erosion damage to the edges of the bike paths, with some of the paths remaining under water. Bike path bridges, Kellenberger said, were in the process of being assessed for damage.
Kellenberger said TDC personnel were in the process of cleaning up minor storm debris from the regional accesses and beaches, along with repairing washed-out vehicle access points to the beach at Inlet Beach and the Whale’s Tail in Miramar Beach.
He reported that all the dune lake outfalls had transformed into “raging rivers” since the storm, pushing three-to-four-foot waves into the gulf. Kellenberger said the TDC’s code enforcement officers had been assisting the WCSO in monitoring the safety of beachgoers who might be tempted to surf the outfalls.
Walton County Fire Rescue Chief Brian Coley reported responses to three fires resulting from lightning strikes connected with the inclement weather. He added that his personnel were striving to make contact with people in areas that they had not yet been able to access.
Imfeld asked DeFuniak Springs City Manager Sara Bowers, who was in attendance, about recent reports of seven inches of water in the DeFuniak Springs City Hall building. Bowers indicated that this was not correct. “I don’t know where that came from,” she chuckled.
Chapman brought up the matter of the April 30 explosion at the Escambia County jail that had killed two inmates and sent approximately 200 people to hospitals. With investigation ongoing, a natural gas source in the building is believed to be the cause for the incident.
Chapman revealed that Walton County could be asked to house the jail’s inmate population. He suggested that Walton County Deputy Administrator Stan Sunday be tasked with meeting with Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson to see if the currently-unused pod at the Walton County Jail could be readied so that it could be offered to house the Escambia County inmates.
A motion to that effect was approved 4-0.
Chapman had previously expressed concern that Walton County Public Works personnel could tire out in connection with the storm recovery and repair efforts and might need extra help. Stafford came forward to ask if the BCC would like him to “pull in” local contractors if needed. Davis commented that the BCC would be able to so authorize Stafford on a temporary basis during the emergency period. Stafford pledged to work closely with Davis in the event that he undertook such hiring. In a 4-0 vote, the BCC provided this authorization.
Shortly before the conclusion of the meeting, Jones told the commissioners that another meeting regarding the emergency might be required early in the week of May 5.
By DOTTY NIST, photos courtesy of Walton County Public Information Office