The Flagler Beach City Commission took stock of Hurricane Ian’s impact on the city at a hastily arranged emergency meeting at noon today, balancing the fact that the hurricane largely spared Flagler County of severe impacts but still left Flagler Beach with the most damage locally.
“We the city team, and you, as the leaders of that team, are beginning a very long journey to fully recovered from this storm,” Flagler Beach City Manager William Whitson told city commissioners at a hastily arranged emergency meeting at noon today. “We took a heavy hit, especially the beach. But according to others who were here, it wasn’t as bad as Irma, if that’s any consolation.”
Whitson added: “We are a small organization yet we got hit the hardest. And we have to do all the same things that the larger organizations have to do. So again, we would appreciate your patience.”
He then tallied up the city’s damage and coming challenges from Hurricane Ian, which dropped about 10 inches on the county and spared most of the county of its tropical storm-force winds–except for the barrier island.
Flagler Beach government alone had water intrusion three buildings, the library, the maintenance shop and public works. The police department’s roof lost shingles. There was some damage to the water tank.
Several officials have been evaluating the heavily damaged pier, the beach, the dune walkovers, public parks and buildings.
CrowderGulf, the debris-removal company, will be conducting that removal for the city. “CrowderGulf is here,” Whitson said. But it will take a little while, he said.
“Our dunes did their job, but they sacrificed themselves,” Whiston said. “The dunes have been scoured to a nub, and if we have another event, I don’t know what the future of the community would be, and certainly the future of A1A. So we are also in touch with FDOT,” the Florida Department of Transportation, which is responsible for A1A. “I’ve been constantly talking with them, there are contractors being mobilized as we speak and sand will be added to the beach in critical locations. I am trying my best to show them where we have seen damage. There’s also repairs that have been made to A1A on a sinkhole.”
There are no restrictions on water and sewer usage. Power had been restored to all customers, in Flagler Beach and across Flagler. All dune walkovers are closed except for a stretch from South 5th to South 9th. South 3rd is open. On the north side, walkovers are all closed except for North 7th to 9th, North 11th to 14th, and North 17th. All closed north of that.
“The beaches open. However,” Whitson said, “people must be mindful. We just had a major storm. There’s bacteria in the water. There’s debris in the water, there are nails and all kinds of sharp objects on the beach. If you go down there you go down at your own risk. We have repeatedly sent that message throughout the weekend, to which people have summarily ignored it.”
Drew Smith, the city attorney, put it this way: “We can only do so much and we have to recognize at a certain point that people are going to go where people want to go, and that is our messaging now. We’re going to do what we can to advise you where things are not safe. But if you choose to go there, you are doing that at your own risk.” That’s the case anywhere Hurricane Ian struck, he said.
The pier is an open question. It’s a cost-benefit analysis: “Will it cost more to do temporary stabilization and repairs and open the pier for a short period of time, versus going ahead with the ultimate demolition that was scheduled anyway,” Whitson said. Engineers are running the numbers. “My desire is to open the pier back up if we can do so safely, if we can stabilize it, if it doesn’t cost more to do that than just do the demolition that’s required.”
The city has qualified for aid through the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) for its public structures like the pier or its parks. The city will be reimbursed by FEMA for expenses backdated to three days before the storm. The city has spent $65,000 on payroll alone through the past weekend. FEMA’s number for individual assistance is active from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., at 1-800-621-3362.
“We are working with the county [Emergency Operations Center] to explore the possibility of getting FEMA to partner with us on a disaster recovery center,” Whitson said. “That center would be set up at the Wickline complex in the senior center. It would be to help residents who may have claims to recover faster from the disaster.”
Mayor Suzy Johnston was displeased about the eastbound lanes of the bridge getting opened to all traffic, rather than just local residents, before power was restored to the island on Friday, leaving residents feeling vulnerable for their properties and weighing the option not to leave at the next evacuation order–a prospect that would rapidly whiten Emergency Management Director Jonathan Lord’s hair.
“We had generators. We had working traffic lights and traffic control,” Whitson said. “There were people that were going to find their way around that situation anyway, coming from the south and the north on A1A. We just felt like it was hard to control and we weren’t able to meet the objective. Had the damage been worse, then certainly we would have kept the bridge closed longer.”
“So just to clarify,” the mayor pressed on, “as long as the city is okay, then we’re not going to worry about protecting them essentially, our residents. That’s where they they felt like they were the ones that were left vulnerable.”
Whitson said the police department had all its personnel patrolling, along with sheriff’s deputies “all over the place. So no one was vulnerable,” he said. “They may have felt that way because of the situation and especially with the power being out, that was not good. But we never felt that the situation wasn’t safe and we stand by our decision.”
Commission Chairman Ken Bryan said he was part of the meeting that led to the determination of opening the bridge–and had previously policed areas of the central part of the city, with Commissioner James Sherman, but any attempts to keep people from the beaches or the boardwalk seemed futile, to the point that people were ripping up the “caution” tape and going through. “So much so that yesterday we even talked about putting up physical barriers to prevent people from going out, Bryan said.
During public comments today the half dozen people who spoke complimented the city’s response but also and suggested a few issues to address, and some complained about delayed debris clean-up, especially around the city-owned golf course at the south end of town, and trash removal.
City communications were also assailed: “They expect the police department to take care of social media and informing the public. Typically that is something done by the city,” one resident said. “Our city website is a joke and you guys, that’s something that has needed to be addressed and now we’re in the middle of a crisis. And here we are. It shouldn’t be coming on water bills, shouldn’t be coming on email. I mean, the fact that we don’t even have an email system for our citizens and we’re going through word of mouth. The fact we don’t have a setup of where to send people who need help. People have questions.”
The city will allows temporary structures and utility vehicles, including trailers and recreational vehicles, to be placed or parked in residential areas for the duration of the emergency. That allows residents who are repairing homes to have another option for shelter. Some items, like temporary storage pods, or RV’s connected to sewer lines, still require notifications to the city, if not necessarily a permit, City Clerk Penny Overstreet said. The city’s website will outline the rules. There would be a one-year end date, with special exceptions to be issued on a case by case basis past that date, if the date itself isn’t extended.
Residents normally need a permit to knock out drywall, as many residents are having to do because of flooding. That permit fee is waived. But “that’s not a waiver of any electrical or plumbing permit or anything that requires a contractor licensed by the state of Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation,” Overstreet said. “So they still need to come file and pull the permit. It’s just the waiver of the fee.” By state law, fees can’t be waived for electrical and other such work.
Instead of a State of the City meeting, the city will frame the meeting, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 26, as a storm update in a town hall format where residents can ask questions and get answers.
“Let me just end by saying that I would urge patience as we go through this process,” Whitson said. “I’ve known recoveries to take many years. I think our community is far more resilient and better built and better used to this so it won’t take us as long as other places but it will take time. And I just want to ask for your support and understanding. It’s more important now than it’s ever been.
“And I have to take just a brief minute to not only praise you. I was in constant touch with each and every one of you. And that’s such a blessing to a manager to have that kind of open relationship. It really makes a difference. And my team,” he choked, “I see your sacrifice. There are employees at work right now whose homes were flooded, and were victims themselves. Yet they were out there putting the public’s business first. And I am quite proud to be part of this team. And I want to thank them, and I want to let you know that we’re not going to stop until this community is put back together and recovered and we’ll be better, bigger and stronger.”
Flagler Beach officials have been concerned about sightseers and beach-goers venturing on a beach riddled with hazardous debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. (© FlaglerLive) Flagler Beach officials have been concerned about sightseers and beach-goers venturing on a beach riddled with hazardous debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. (© FlaglerLive)