Emergency management director provides update in wake of Jan. 9 storms in Walton County

By DOTTY NIST

A little over a week after three tornadoes touched down in Walton County, Walton County Emergency Management Director Jeff Goldberg addressed the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) with an update on the severe weather that had passed through the county on Jan. 9 and on the emergency management department’s efforts in response to the impacts of the weather event.

Goldberg spoke to the commissioners at their Jan. 18 rescheduled regular meeting at the Walton County Courthouse.

On Jan. 15, after surveys conducted by the National Weather Service, Walton County Emergency Management had reported that the county had been affected by three tornadoes in the early morning of Jan. 9, one in south Walton County, one in Eucheeanna, and one at the DeFuniak Springs Airport.

Goldberg told the commissioners that the south Walton tornado had been rated as an EF (Enhanced Fujita) 1 scale tornado at 110 miles per hour with an 11-mile path.

(The EF Scale is used to assign a tornado a rating based on estimated wind speeds and related damage. EF ratings range from EF0 for wind speeds from 65 to 85 miles per hour, to EF5 for wind speeds over 200 miles per hour.)

All three of the Jan. 9 Walton County tornadoes were rated EF1, the rating corresponding with wind speeds from 86 to 110 miles per hour.

Goldberg reported that the south Walton County tornado had essentially started on the beach, traveled all the way across south Walton County, traversed the Choctawhatchee Bay, and then entered Freeport.

The Eucheeanna tornado, he noted, was 95 miles per hour with a path of approximately 8/10 mile.

The DeFuniak Springs tornado, Goldberg stated, had also been a small one with a path less than half a mile long but with a speed of 90 miles per hour. He noted that this tornado had damaged hangars at the airport.

“We had a total of about 155 residential structures that sustained damage,” Goldberg added.

“We did some preliminary damage assessments,” he continued.

Goldberg reported that state personnel were present on Jan. 18, working to verify the data that county personnel had collected in preparation for conveying an assessment to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

He explained that his department was “looking at what we may be able to get” both in the way of a public assistance disaster declaration and an individual disaster assistance declaration.

Goldberg said the public assistance disaster declaration would help with infrastructure, debris removal costs, and emergency protective measures costs, while the individual disaster assistance declaration would provide assistance to people who had had their primary residences damaged.

He explained that there are two specific thresholds to be met for a public assistance disaster declaration, the first of those being the local threshold, which is $346,000 in costs. “That’s not much,” Goldberg said, “DeFuniak Springs had over $390,000.”

“So we’ve met that threshold;” he said, speaking of the local threshold, adding, “the big issue is the state threshold.”

“So all of the counties,” Goldberg continued, “any support that the state put through, they have to…meet a threshold of $39 million, so we’re not sure we’re going to be able to hit that, the state’s gathering information.”

In an effort to meet the latter threshold, Goldberg said his department is being “very forward leaning in getting all of our costs associated with debris removal, protective measures, CHELCO…because they are eligible for public assistance.”

He said part of these calculations will be costs to remove an estimated 15,000 cubic yards of debris. “Debris removal operations are ongoing,” Goldberg reported, crediting Walton County Public Works for their “phenomenal” clean-up work and noting that the debris removal operations will continue for the next few weeks or potentially a month.

District 4 Commissioner Donna Johns voiced appreciation for this hard work and for the dedication of the Walton County Emergency Management team.

“And it’s definitely a team effort;” Goldberg said, “we had the utilities and the sheriff’s office, the fire district, public works…emergency management is a team effort…”

He also highlighted support with the effort provided by the BCC and Walton County Administration, also describing it as “phenomenal.”

In response to a question, Goldberg said he anticipated word within a week or so from the state as to whether the county had met for the second threshold for a public assistance disaster declaration. He pledged that the BCC would be notified as soon as word was received.

“And that’s the requirement for a presidential declaration?” District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell asked.

“Correct,” Goldberg replied, “one of two presidential declarations—the public assistance one, which helps pay for our costs, and then the individual assistance one, which provides support to our residents who have primary residences here.”

He anticipated that assistance would be made available in some form, whether it would be a full individual assistance declaration or an SBA (U.S. Small Business Administration) assistance declaration. “That’s yet to be determined,” Goldberg said.

“I talked to the team today, and they’re making a lot of headway on getting the data on the damage assessments,” he noted.

In response to a question from Miramar Beach resident Suzanne Harris, Goldberg confirmed that assistance provided to the county and to individuals would be for costs not covered by insurance.

In conclusion, Goldberg requested ratification of the BCC chairman’s signature on a resolution for the declaration of a local state of emergency (LSE) for the Jan. 9 severe weather event dated Jan. 8, plus approval and authorization for the chairman’s signing LSEs dated Jan. 14 and Jan. 20, along with delegation of authority for the chairman to sign any subsequent extensions of the LSE.

The request received unanimous approval from the BCC.