Flagler Beach government hosted a post-Hurricane Ian public forum Wednesday evening as officials and volunteers focused on the city evading the more devastating damage of southwest Florida while projecting continuing recovery efforts.
The city’s message was: Between city preparedness, the mobilization of volunteers, the city’s (and the county’s) continuing luck and ongoing planning for recovery, Flagler Beach made it through with limited damage but to its pier and beaches, which are unrecognizable.
If the city’s message was mostly cheery and reassuring, some of the residents in attendance were more frustrated, pressing the city officials to take stormwater and flooding issues more seriously.
“We want you to keep complaining, we want you to keep telling us what your point of view is,” City Manager William Whitson said, addressing repairs to the city’s damaged or wanting stormwater and sewer system. People in the audience did complain, with little satisfaction other than to hear a commissioner say the city’s capabilities are limited. And when complaints mounted, Whitson would deliver his most frequent line of the evening: “I wasn’t here then.” He said it four times.
Others complained about the wasted money on dune-rebuilding after Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, when other sand-catching options should be studied.
This crowd, however, seemed less opposed to sea walls than Flagler Beach crowds at city commission meetings past. “They act like it’s a joke or something,” one member of the audience said immediately after the meeting, cussing his frustrations at what seemed to him discordant cheer.
And there were unanswered questions, such as whether the Federal Emergency Management Administration has a buy-back program for flooded homes. A FEMAS representative at the meeting did not know.
Ryan Simpson, a senior planner with Flagler County’s Emergency Management division, provided the storm impact’s latest numbers: $10.6 million in damage to residential homes, $330,000 in damages to some 15 businesses, and at least $5.6 million in damaged public infrastructure, not including an estimated $35 million needed repairs to the dune system. A disaster-recovery center will be opened. Still, those were modest figures compared to most of the other counties in Ian’s path.
That kind of devastation “is entirely possible” in Flagler if an actual hurricane struck, Simpson told an audience of about 75 people. “Flagler County has been consistently lucky, we really have,” he said, but the county must not “put its head in the sand” and should remain fully prepared for a more direct hit.
Tracy Callahan-Hennessey, president of Flagler Strong, described how that all-volunteer non-profit grew out of the wreckage of Hurricane Matthew and Irma, when the city was largely on its own in the immediate days after the storms. Volunteers stepped in. Flagler Strong was born, and grew from there. The organization meets monthly and hosts events, not least among them its weekly farmer’s market, all to strengthen the community or keep it prepared. What we really are as a non-profit,” and as a local organization, she said, “we know where the resources are and what to do, we want to be a safety net for the citizens.” She noted: “People will talk to us that may not talk to other people.” The organization fed some 400 people during the storm, in parts of the community that had no power for several days, and collectively filled thousands of sand bags.
An unspoken footnote: the organization’s involvement and help on behalf of so many people was also an indication of the large number of people who ignored evacuation orders on the barrier island and low-lying areas along the Intracoastal.
Scott Spradley, the Flagler Beach attorney and photographer who’s lived in town 15 years, spoke of the Beachside Blog he wrote on FlaglerLive for the four days of the storm (drawing an enthusiastic response), showing the photographic work he did to chronicle the four days. One of the pictures he took was of the pier, its eastern end very freshly broken off, as an enormous wave was bearing down on it. “That was the last picture my camera ever took,” Spradley said: his camera was damaged by the seawater spraying against in in violent gusts. He showed pictures of the coquina rock washed out from the dunes, and the sheared off dunes themselves: “you can see, there is no beach,” he said, showing pictures taken with his drone. He also showed a close-up of the shattered pier.
William Whitson summed up the way the city prepared for the storm, from fueling up to organizing all personnel’s schedules to working with Flagler Strong’s volunteers at sandbag pits to contracting for debris removal and the like: debris removal citywide is to be completed by Thursday. After the storm a damage assessment team fanned out to take stock of all damage to city facilities. That report will be in the city manager’s hands on Thursday as well. He spoke of coming dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Administration and state “resiliency” dollars the city can tap into to help defray the costs of reconstruction, especially regarding the pier.
The city announced the meeting as a “Hurricane Ian Informational Forum” where residents could speak directly with all relevant city departments, get a sense of the city’s response and what’s ahead, and ask questions of city officials. The manager had set up a dais with all the commissioners’ and the mayor’s name-plates at the front of the room, creating the impression of a commission meeting, which would have been illegal: the meeting was not announced either as a meeting or as a workshop.
Neither the city manager nor the commission chairman, Ken Bryan, seemed concerned. The city clerk checked with the city attorney–who was on vacation–saying he had no objections to the set-up, since the commission was not taking any action. (Under Florida law, all government board meetings must be announced as such ahead of time, whether they are informational or action meetings. This one was not.) In the end, all the commissioners, with Bryan’s exception, opted to sit in the audience, thus ostensibly removing themselves from any appearance of impropriety.
Bryan sat next to Mayor Suzie Johnston on the dais. Johnston opened the meeting, Bryan emceed the questions from the audience and answered some of them. Both Bryan and Commissioner Jane Mealy addressed different aspects of city policies past and present, whether regarding flooding or beach management, in answer to questions from the audience. That amounted to engaging with questions in a meeting format, even as Mealy attempted to correct the record on public assumptions that the city has not attempted different beach-management approaches. The federal government, Mealy said, has limited the city’s authority regarding the beach.
“There’s a whole history. This didn’t start with Ian, it didn’t start with Matthew and Irma,” Mealy said in reference to the coming beach renourishment to the south end of the pier. “It started in 2001.”
Bryan pledged to continue holding town hall meetings like this evening’s, and spoke of Thursday evening;’s meeting, when the commission will make a decision on the future of the pier.