Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Davis Shores Town Hall on Hurricane Matthew, Infrastructure and City Response

There were more questions than answers last night at R.B. Hunt Elementary School, as City of St. Augustine officials faced a packed cafeteria full of hurricane victims feeling victimized by the City government and FEMA. There was time for some 22 questions.

Some were answered helpfully, as when the nuances of FEMA's 50% rule were intelligently explained.

Some were answered incompletely or inadequately, such as SANDS President and former City Commission candidate Susan Rathbone's question about the abrupt shutoff of water to Anastasia Island, apparently violating Florida law and without seeking a court order. Our efforts to seek answers will continue.

Our Nation's Oldest City's pain after a Category 3 Hurricane hit is shared by City staff and Commissioners, several of whose homes were filled with sewage and storm surge waters from Matanzas River and Salt Run. Planning snd Building Director David Birchim is having his home lifted up to be higher than the flood zone. Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline is having her home demolished and rebuilt.

Residents are conscious that global ocean level rise is here -- routine "nuisance flooding" happens now. Investments in storm sewer and sanitary sewer systems are coming, but more work is needed on sea walls and coastal erosion control, which would be given a coherent framework by the proposed St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore legislation.

In addition to City staff, four elected officials attended -- Mayor Nancy Shaver, Commissioners Nancy Sikes-Kline and Leanna S.A. Freeman, and County Commissioner Henry Dean, an environmental attorney and former Executive Director of the St. Johns River Water Management District and South Florida Water Management District. No one from FEMA attended. In questions and private conversations, residents expressed exasperation with the feckless fed feebs at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), whose wrongful denial of flood insurance claims and threats to people questioning them should be referred to the FEMA Inspector General.

Hurricane Matthew's aftermath represents a crisis of confidence in government, which too often demonstrably fails to protect and serve.

But on the positive side, I see real growth among most City officials. Before the storm, some were still on October 6, 2017 "frozen in the ice of their own indifference," as FDR said, quoting "the immortal Dante." Let the healing continue.

Could empathy be breaking out? Will the people's suffering ennoble them, leading us to make this a better place?

Thanks to our incomparable reform Mayor Nancy Shaver, we weathered this storm without the flummery, dupery and nincompoopery that long characterized City Hall in the itty-bitty city, a place where bigotry and political corruption long presided.

People are asking questions, demanding answers and expecting democracy.

How cool is that?

Christina Kelso (SAR)

Here's the Record article on last night's meeting:

Posted February 22, 2017 01:02 am
Davis Shores residents look for answers at city town hall about Hurricane Matthew

People stepped up to a microphone in the middle of a crowded building at R.B. Hunt Elementary School on Tuesday night, seeking answers and relief for people recovering from Hurricane Matthew.

The town hall meeting, hosted by the city of St. Augustine, focused on the hurricane’s impact to city infrastructure in Davis Shores — and what projects are underway.

But questions from the crowd of more than 100 people turned also to construction rules, sewage backups, routine flooding and why the city shut off water service before the hurricane.

One person asked whether the city will continue to allow people live in cars or campers on their property as they restore their homes, though the emergency declaration that allows the emergency living conditions is set to expire in April.

City Manager John Regan indicated the city would find a way to extend that deadline.

People also questioned the “50-percent rule.” The rule basically says that if the value of repairs to a house exceeds 50 percent of its value, the house has to be brought up to code. That could mean having to elevate a home, which for some could lead them to choose demolition.

David Abraham, of Davis Shores, said his house was spared but he has seen other homeowners wrestle with whether to demolish or elevate their homes, and have insufficient insurance money to build a new home. He asked whether the rule could be waived.

“You’re going to create a neighborhood where there are people who are having to leave or where houses are being left to mold and fester while the rest of us watch them,” Abraham said.

David Birchim, planning and building director, said it’s not a local rule, and not enforcing the 50-percent rule could put the city’s participation in the federal flood insurance program in jeopardy if the city were to get audited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he said.

The city has been working with homeowners who are dealing with repairing and rebuilding, both those affected by the 50-percent rule and others.

“This was a big … life-changing event that occurred. … But we’re working very, very hard to keep everyone in their homes,” Birchim said.

As for infrastructure, the city’s sewage pump stations were damaged by flooding, and some need to be replaced, said Bill Mendez, engineering division manager. The city also plans to raise pump stations and equipment to minimum flood elevations.

Also, the city plans to install 17 backflow prevention valves help keep water from backing up and flooding Davis Shores, said Reuben Franklin Jr., a city engineer.

As part of the flooding during the storm, the sewer system overflowed and some people reported that raw sewage contaminated their homes.

Martha Graham, public works director, said what overflowed was mostly water that had gotten into the system and some sewage.

When asked if there would be a way to prevent that happening in a future storm, Graham said the potential would still be there.

Susan Rathbone, of Davis Shores, asked why the city shut water off to the area before the hurricane hit.

Graham said if a water main broke during the storm, no one would have been able to get there and fix it. Also, the city needed to protect its water supply to be able to fight fires after the storm.

“We could potentially have lost the entire water system, the entire water supply for the city,” Graham said.

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