Tuesday’s Palm Coast City Council Meeting kicked off with a presentation on the December weather event dubbed the Starlight Tornado, named for the Christmas parade in Central Park and Town Center, cancelled because of the memorable twister that ripped through the city’s B, F and C Sections. The presentation celebrated the community’s collective effort and also examined the dollar cost to the area.
City Manager Jim Landon cited the “exemplary” performances by responders. First responders were on the scene in seven minutes. The swift response also demonstrated that the city has the resources, manpower and financial, to tackle such an event. When these things happen, “we are ready to respond,” Landon said. The presentation echoed his observation, taking the audience step by step through what was being presented as an impeccable response, accompanied by photos that segued from simply destruction to destruction getting cleaned up. A couple of panicked 911 calls were included for added effect.
Palm Coast Fire Chief Mike Beadle, who was in charge of the response that night, credited the Flagler County Sheriff’s office, which he said was “right in the middle of it,” emphasizing particularly the Flagler dispatch center, saying it was lit up “like a Christmas tree,” in addition to handling all their radio traffic. Beadle’s voice was itself part of that traffic, often crackling with unmasked indignation at gawkers who cluttered his responders’ efforts after the tornado. Flagler County Emergency Management, Florida Power and Light, the American Red Cross, (complemented by customer service reps who helped get in touch with the insurance companies), the Small Business Association, and State of Florida Division Management were all in the mix of the after-storm response. “It wasn’t just a handful of people who started this,” Beadle said.
“Interestingly enough, many sightseers and the media had showed up within fifteen minutes, creating bumper to bumper traffic. That became a challenge,” Beadle said. (In fact, only one television station was in that mix, and only briefly: cops had barred entry into the neighborhood.)
Public Works Director Richard Adams said that the “first push” began at about 7:45 p.m. with city workers doing much of the heavy lifting, removing debris from the roads and sidewalks, so that large equipment and other resources could safely maneuver. Over the succeeding week, 36 employees, and nine jail inmates, were involved in the cleanup, Adams said, putting in 833 man-hours. The city has a contract to use inmate labor.
Dianne Torino, the Contracts and Risk manager, talked up Waste Pro, the city’s garbage contractor, whose workers, along with pubic works, picked up approximately 348 tons of debris over five days.
According to Nestor Abreu, the city’s Director of Community Development, the total estimated damage, which took into account homes ranging from partially damaged to leveled, 241 of them all told, was projected at $7.3 million.
A major concern was people who’d try to take advantage of the vulnerable—those who “offer service where they have no business and in many cases have no intention of providing those services,” Abreu said. Florida’s Business and Professional Regulation and the Division of Workers’ Compensation were on hand as a buffer. One “tell” of a fraud, he said, is when a company doesn’t provide workers compensation.
Jennifer Stagg, Emergency Management Planner for Flagler Emergency Management, explained that for the city to be eligible for assistance, two thresholds based on population have to be met. County aid has a price tag of $335,000 that must be matched dollar for dollar, with a state cap of $27 million in order to get federal or FEMA assistance. The city’s numbers don’t match those, so assistance is not likely.
Chris Quinn, the city’s Finance Director, acknowledged the interest in final figures to any disaster. “We talk about this every year in the budget—that we have this disaster reserve fund,” for which the minimum amount is set by the City Council each year. At the beginning of this fiscal year, the fund had $2.2 million in the bank, a somewhat healthier figure than in previous years.
“It’s important to keep in mind, during the normal course of business, we have many levels of purchasing policy, compliance, and things,” Quinn said. “For instance, if I needed to buy a pencil, it might take me 12 levels of approval to buy it, but those are there to protect the citizens’ money.” When it comes to the Disaster Reserve Fund, however, “Once there’s a declared disaster, our disaster policies go into place, because it really doesn’t matter at that point, when you have a health, welfare, and safety issue, what that pencil costs. We have to get out there and we have to do what we have to do for the citizens, so having this money available strips away some of that concern—so wait a minute, can I bring this piece of equipment here because I have budgetary restraints?” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts declared just such a state of emergency after the tornado struck.
Overall costs to the city of the recovery amounted to $186,037.19, and the figure is still growing, “due to all the moving parts,” Quinn said. The sheriff’s office accounted for $89,254.75 of that total, surprising many council members. The answer for that, according to Stagg, was simply because the sheriff’s office gave their total amount for equipment and personnel, while the others are still calculating those numbers. “In a full- scale activation,” Stagg said, “we would have this info much more readily available, but given we have minimum staffing at the county and had to maintain day-to-day operations, it’s a tedious process, and that’s why we ask for 30 days to get it together.” Some of the costs associated with the sheriff’s office would be the same as regular policing. Other offices, like the fire department, for example, haven’t been accounted for at all yet. Stagg also said it’s important to have these numbers, because there’s a range of potential financial-recovery avenues available under the circumstances, for instance, using the recreation center for shelter, for which they’d get dollars from a different resource.
Netts asked how some of that $2.2 million that was in the Disaster Reserve Fund would be restored. Quinn said that they would have to “play it by ear within the departmental budgets to see how they do for the year.” It’d be best for them to absorb their own costs, with some exceptions, but a quarterly review would determine that. Otherwise, the money could be made up with general tax dollars.
The presentation culminated with a Palm Coast TV video produced by Tom Hansen–whose work wins awards every year–and narrated by Netts. The video showed dramatically, like a weather channel special, how ready Palm Coast was for the first tornado to hit the city since its official incorporation. You can see it embedded above.