Last Updated: Saturday, 8:25 a.m.
Long-awaited cuts into walls and into sections of flooring took place at the troubled Sheriff’s Operations Center in Bunnell all day Thursday and today in the presence of sheriff’s, union and county officials. More testing will continue for at least a day.
The preliminary results from about thirty cuts into walls and more floor cuts are concerning to sheriff’s officials and their employees: old wood and old insulation they’d been told had been removed at the time of the building’s reconstruction in 2013 and 2014, the apparent presence of bat droppings not only where there’d been a known infestation in the past, but in an area of the building not known to have been infested–and significant moisture everywhere floor tiles and carpeting was cut out.
County Administrator Craig Coffey has so far largely downplayed serious issues with the building. He did not directly respond to a text this evening, but forwarded a summary of the findings written by County Attorney Al Hadeed to county commissioners shortly before 7 p.m. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly mistook the email to commissioners as Coffey’s. Yet at 8 p.m., Julie Murphy, the county’s spokesperson, emailed the same letter to local media as a “statement” from Coffey.) Hadeed described the floor moisture as “an area of greater concern,” and used more distressed language than county administration officials have used previously in that email.
“Substantial moisture was found,” Hadeed wrote. “It is not certain whether the moisture was from water being whisked into the slab from outside runoff or welling up from below the foundation or another source. The wall cavities are completely dry. The expert team from Terracon will be assessing this and are preparing a supplemental protocol for this purpose. This is the most disturbing finding of the visitation and must be followed closely.”
Terracon Consultants Inc. is the company the county hired to conduct this round of testing.
Centers for Disease Control scientists who had visited the building last fall to investigate why more than two dozen sheriff’s employees had developed health issues while working in the building–and why the building was evacuated in June–had warned of just such a possibility, saying their observations pointed to water intrusion. The two days of testing appear to have substantiated the fear.
“It’s got to be tested yet, but I think that what has been found is that there is a serious moisture issue in the building under carpet, under tiles,” Sheriff Rick Staly said less than an hour after the building was vacated this evening, “and where there’s moisture there’s generally mold. But I think it goes beyond mold. Now, I’m not a building expert and I’m not a scientist, but when you leave old, nasty insulation in a building and cover it up, that’s been exposed for many many years after the building was abandoned, it’s a serious problem.”
The building had been the old Memorial Hospital until 2002, when the hospital moved and the building was sold to a team of local investors. The property remained fallow and in disrepair until Flagler County government bought it in 2013 to recast it as a Sheriff’s Operations Center. Between 60 and 70 employees, including the sheriff’s administration, detectives, evidence and other key personnel, work in the building.
In late 2017 four employees moved out of the building because of health issues traced to mold problems in two rooms. The health problems did not resolve when they returned to the building, but rather spread to other employees. The building was evacuated in June. Since then the sheriff and employees asked the county–the landlord and owner of the building–to cut into walls and examine the structure. The county worked out an agreement to do so last month, leading sheriff’s and other officials to accuse the county administration of purposefully stalling.
The county claims it was following a workers’ compensation administrative judge’s direction in an Aug. 30 “preservation” order “to preserve the premises for a reasonable time.” The order did not name the county. The administrative judge on Dec. 21 vacated the preservation order and approved further inspections.
“We were not delaying this work,” Hadeed said in a long email written after midnight, explaining and justifying the county’s approach on testing. Referring to the administrative law judge’s orders, he said “You will discern that the reason County destructive testing was delayed was to allow the claimants to conduct their testing in the most native condition of the building, before we altered it.”
Staly, Coffey and Gabe Fuentes, senior vice president of the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association, agreed to protocols controlling how and when the testing and cuts into the Operations Center’s structure would take place, and who would be present. (See the protocol here, as provided by Strobridge. Hadeed subsequently provided the executed protocol, which does not differ in substance, with the exhibit showing where the cuts were to take place.)
County Engineer Faith al-Khatib and her assistant, Richard Gordon, took part, as did two engineers from Terracon Consultants (James Saizan and John O’Reilly), Fuentes and Sgt. Joe Barile, representing the PBA, Staly and Chief Mark Strobridge, and a handful of other designees. Hadeed was also present. (“We needed someone with authority to make any protocol related decisions or to address scope questions and importantly to keep the process moving to conclusion,” he said. But he’d also initially been reluctant to be so assigned.) Coffey was not at the site. Staly was there periodically, but Strobridge spent both days in the building. Today, the team was joined by newly-elected County Commissioner Joe Mullins, Coffey’s harshest critic. (Both Mullins and Fuentes said they developed skin rashes after their time in the building yesterday and today.)
“I think this has vindicated myself and the employees,” Staly said of the last two days’ revelations.
Staly, Strobridge, Fuentes and Mullins, in separate interviews after they left the building this evening, each concurred that one of their more disturbing take-away from the past two days was the finding that there was age-old insulation and unsealed wood left over from the building’s previous incarnation.
“In many of the cuts today what we saw was old, yellow insulation and pink, newer insulation, old wood and some new wood, more recent,” Strobridge said. “In other words what we had been told all along was there was nothing left over from that prior building. What we learned today was they reused insulation or didn’t disturb the old insulation, and they reused some of the wood that may not have been rotted. But all along we were told, it’s all brand new, it’s all brand new, it’s all brand new.”
Mullins said just before Christmas he met with Coffey, Staly and Strobridge, and was assured at that meeting, by Coffey, that the old wood had all been removed. (He did not ask about the insulation, assuming that it would have been removed as well, he said.) Mullins, a builder, recognized the old wood when he took pictures and video of his own during his inspection. “One of the pictures, you can tell it’s a 1970 sawmill cutting, it’s the typical look you have with that wood, from the 1970s. That concerned me.”
“What concerns me with all this was the statement that it was replaced, and that makes you start to worry about what was covered up,” Mullins said. “My concern is the deception.”
Hadeed’s email acknowledged the presence of insulation and wood from the older building’s hospital era, an acknowledgement that, by having to be made, suggests others were under a different impression, and that the revelation warranted explanation: “Some of the cutouts at the roof level showed old and new wood,” Hadeed wrote. “The old wood was found to be sound and dry. Some samples were tested with a moisture probe and the old wood tested as drier than the new wood. This wood was not part of the rotten wood to be replaced in the building construction specifications. Please note that any bad wood was to be removed as part of the construction project.”
Regarding insulation, Hadeed continued: “Also, older insulation was found under newer insulation in certain areas near the roof level. The building specs called for retaining the older insulation and adding the new insulation on top of it. Samples of the older insulation were taken and are to be tested. The insulation was found in sealed cavities. In one of those samples, in one corner of the building, the consultant found a small amount of material that appeared to be bat guano. The material will be sampled and tested to confirm its origin. The site was not in the area where bats were residing at the time of construction.”
But in a letter to commissioners on Dec. 20 (it was incorrectly dated 2019 in its original), Coffey had explicitly stated that no old insulation or old wood from the old structure had remained: “The building was gutted and replaced almost in its entirety,” he wrote. “This included flooring, structural bracing, roofing membrane, sheetrock/walls, insulation, ceiling, outside sheeting, electrical plumbing, HVAC (heating ventilation, and air conditioning), etc. The only things left were the concrete slab, structural steel framing, masonry walls, and the roof system. No expense was spared, and for all practical purposes, it was essentially a new building…. To say or indicate shoddy construction occurred is not supported by any evidence and unnecessarily and unfairly smears the reputation of every professional and business who worked on the building.”
Clearly, today’s and yesterday’s findings reveal, it was not “essentially a new building,” and suggest the possibility of shoddy construction is not a “smear,” but another avenue to be investigated.
Samples are to be analyzed by “EMLS or EMlab P&K laboratories,” according to the protocol.
“Obviously all that stuff is alarming to us,” Fuentes, the union leader, said. “It was our impression everything was new, and everything was brought down to the block basically, and it does not appear to be so.”
The problems within the building have been only half the issue. The other half is the political and perception problems Coffey’s handling of the building, as its landlord, has generated. The sheriff and his employees now so mistrust him that the sheriff is no longer on speaking terms with him, and the employees have called for his firing (as have two of the county’s largest public sector unions: teachers and firefighters.) Coffey’s explanation to commissioners by way of Hadeed aside, the perception that the building was dissimulating old wood and insulation thought to have been removed, even if innocuous in itself (and that’s still an untested “if”) would further damage relations between the two sides and lead to speculation of literal “cover-up.”
That’s before the potentially more serious problem of bat guano and almost certainly ore serious problem of water seepage are brought into the equation.
More notable than the discovery of bat droppings was their location: the building previously had been known to have had a bat infestation, but on its west side. What appears to be droppings today were discovered on the south side, pointing to a broader problem.
Still, no moisture was found in the walls or on the old wood. That was not the case below foot: everywhere that was cut into, whether from 24-inch squares of carpeting or from floor tiles, revealed so much moisture beneath that in some cases the glue was barely functional anymore, Strobridge said. “Basically every sample area they pulled up across the building was wet,” he said, “and I’m not talking about a little damp. I could visually see moisture, and I could also visually see–again, I’m not a chemist–what appears to be mold.”
Mullins said everything he saw is reparable (including the sealing of old wood), but the cost and time it would take for such repairs would be substantial, and repairs don’t mend other issues: “The variable here that concerns me is the bat infestation. Why would you keep insulation that was exposed to it?” he asked. “I think it can be fixed, but what’s the cost going to be, and why wasn’t this done, and why wasn’t it acknowledged.” He said the walls and floors should have been cut into when the sheriff first asked for it.
“My biggest concern is not the insulation or the old wood, it’s the seeping up in the floor. That’s going to be the bigger problem to solve, because that shows there’s no barrier down there,” Mullins said, echoing an assertion Dennis McDonald, himself a developer and a county commission candidate many times over–and a tireless nemesis to county officials–has been making for half a year. “The worst thing as a builder I could see is water coming up from the concrete, and that was observed.”
In his late-night email, Hadeed further addressed the moisture issue: “[T]his was a surprise because the expectation was that if there was moisture it would be in the wall cavities. That was the point of the cut outs. But the cavities were ultra-dry. The CDC expected that if there was water intrusion we would find it there and that origin might be via the roof or potentially the landscaping on the east side of the building. However, there was no evidence on the concrete wall interiors or on the sheetrock, front or back, of any moisture condition. It is puzzling because with all of the prior expert visitations, the individual assessors carry and use moisture sensing devices. How did none of them detect it on their visits? Dr. Hejzlar specifically tested for moisture under carpets and tile and tested the slab itself. Does this mean the moisture was of recent vintage? Just stating it seems remote. I am confounded until I see hard analysis with testing results. We hope to unravel all of this with the coming inspections and testing by Terracon.”
So what happens next?
“That’s the next discussion once all the testing and results are in,” Staly said. “It would be premature to speculate what the next step is. We need to finish this step first, get the report, and then determine what is the next step forward.” Asked directly if there was any hope of re-entering the building, he said: “I think I really need to wait and see,” and added: “Some of the things I was briefed on by Mark I’m not sure are curable but I’m not an engineer and I’m not a builder. But what I do know is that I will not let my employees go back into that building until I am beyond assured that it’s a safe building for them to work.”