Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online newspaper

County News

Irma Pt II: Public Outrage, Non-Responsive Public Officials, Passing the Buck, County Not Talking

Katelyn Potter, Communications Director for the Suwannee River Water Management District, kept a stiff upper lip in front of angry flood victims who wanted answers.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Three weeks after Irma, areas in Southern Columbia County continued to have inaccessible homes due to the flooding on the Santa Fe River, the same river that was a heartbeat away from closing down I-75 in Columbia County. Our Santa Fe River organized a community meeting at Rum138 and invited Columbia County Commissioners, as well as the Suwannee River Water Management and other agencies. Notable no shows were FL DOT and any members of the infamous Columbia County 5.

Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, an advisor to Our Santa Fe River and proprietor of RUM138 introduced the attendees. The Suwannee River Water Management District's Katelyn Potter gave a rundown on some of the conditions during Irma and passed the baton to District hydrologist Tom Mirti.

It didn't take long for residents to show their discontent.

Folks complained about both the Water Management District and Columbia County being unreachable, but the majority of the ire was directed toward Columbia County.

Lack of a Plan and Responsiveness by Columbia County

Flood victims, the press, and just folks listen to the Water Management District before the questions got underway.

The frustration was palpable as Penny Booth reacted to the lack of responsiveness by the County. "Excuse me. Excuse me," she said. "When I called your people, you guys told me, 'We are not helping anybody on a private road.' I don't know who told me that, but for you all to say 'You're not going to help us,' and we got seven families out there and we pay taxes -- every year. We're not gettin' any help. You helped us the last time. You pumped the water over my property into my backyard and now you're saying you're not gonna help us at all."

Tyler Harris followed up: "When I called Friday to find out where we're at -- this is the third call to Public Works. The third call to public works, ok. The engineer, I didn't catch his name, told me, 'Sir, we're no longer under an emergency evacuation. We're done. We've called an all clear.'"

Mr. Mirti did not interrupt the speakers. When they were through and it seemed that the prevalent issues were with Columbia County, he asked if there was somebody from the County that wanted to come up and address the questions that concerned Columbia County.

Columbia County Brass

Emails forwarded from Our Santa Fe River show that on numerous occasions emails were sent to Columbia County and others advising the County of the Community meeting at Rum138. Calls were also made.

On September 27 at 9:30 am, seven days before the meeting, Penny Stanley, secretary to County Manager Ben Scott, responded to an invitation to attend the Rum138 event and a request for County participation at the meeting.

The email to the County stated: "Please share with all BOCC commissioners."

Ms. Stanley responded a few hours later, "I will be glad too [sic]."

Columbia County's Country Club Commissioners

Penny Booth explains that she has been out of her home for three weeks and her house and the road to it are flooded. No commissioners were in attendance to hear her.

None of the legendary County 5 attended the meeting.

Also, neither of the two Assistant County Managers, nor the County Manager attended.

While the local Gainesville TV station attended, the County's mainstream media, the Lake City Reporter was also MIA.

The County dispatched Emergency Management Director Shayne Morgan to attend the meeting.

When it became obvious that most of the questions were directed to, or about Columbia County, your reporter suggested that Ms. Malwitz-Jipson invite Mr. Morgan to the microphone.

Ms. Malwitz-Jipson said, "I already did. He won't talk. He said, 'I was told to take notes.'"

Your reporter confirmed this with Mr. Morgan. He said he came to the meeting with explicit instructions not to answer questions, but to only take notes and report back to the County.

Passing the Buck

It was common knowledge that as the river flooded septic tanks were being flushed out into the rising waters to mix with the flood water. One could smell it.

The meeting was attended by of the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD), the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC).

The FL Department of Transportation (FDOT), who was responsible for closing the three bridges in the south end of Columbia County and was within a heartbeat of shutting down I-75 in Columbia County was MIA.

When your reporter asked why the Water Management District or DEP didn't advise Columbia County Emergency Management of the fecal situation, the Water Management District said that was the responsibility of the Department of Health.

No one explained how the Department of Health was to have been notified.

More residents speak out

Tyler Harris exhibited no patience for officials and bureaucrats without answers.

Jane Blaise, whose homestead was in the epicenter of flooding told the Water Management District, "This is something I fight with every flood."

Scott Thomason of Fort White said he didn't want to accuse anyone of passing the buck, but said, "You're passing the buck," and noted that "Not one [County] Commissioner came down here tonight. That's sad."

Attendees repeated, "That's sad."

Tyler Harris was visibly annoyed. He had been flooded for three weeks. He said:  "Everett Phillips of District IV of Columbia County. I emailed him a compassionate email on Friday and asked him for some help, because I couldn't get it from Columbia County Public Works, or I couldn't get it from Emergency Management. Not one response. Nothing. Not a phone call. Nothing."

Penny Booth added, "I've got a house that I cannot get to... I've got rotting furniture; rotting carpet; my house stinks."

"We've called everybody. Who are we supposed to call?"

A short while later another person said: "I have a question of Emergency Management. I'm just curious. What is the actual process? What are we supposed to do? We've called Red Cross. We've called Emergency Management. We've called our County. FEMA. Who are we supposed to call to receive help?

The County's Emergency Management Director
Finally He Had to Step Up to the Microphone

Shayne Morgan was in the unenviable position of having to answer for his bosses, who were all MIA.

Emergency Management's Morgan: "The first step is always with FEMA."

People from the audience: "Did it. Did it. They told us to go to you."

Mr. Morgan: "OK. They told you to come to me."

Mr. Harris added, "They [FEMA] said they can't pump. They don't do anything except give money. That's up to the County to do this."

Mr. Morgan responded, "As far as the pumping, Public Works handles that. I don't have any control over the pumps."

"Who Is Supposed To Help Us?"

District IV Commissioner Everett Phillips. He claimed he didn't know about the meeting. It is not clear what he knew, as residents said they left phone messages for him.

Another frustrated resident added, "We can't get to our homes and nobody will even come out and even look at our road. Red Cross tried to give me a shelter for me and my son and my family down in Miami. And then she told me she hopes I can find somebody who can help me. Who is supposed to help us?"

Mr. Harris added, "Three weeks we've been out of our homes. Every day, if not one, every one of us has called."

A woman asked, "Are we not part of the County?"

Mr. Morgan answered, "Yes, you're part of the County."

She continued, "Nobody wants to look at our road. How are we being missed? We pay taxes. We've asked for help and we're being ignored."

Mr. Harris said, "We keep being told, 'We have no records of you being flooded.'"

Another person said, "I went to the Fire Department and I said, 'Look guys, can you help me with my 911 services? I need help -- and my neighbors.' He says, 'We'll call FWC. They'll come out there in their boat and come out and get you.'"

Ms. Malwitz-Jipson asked Mr. Morgan to try and set up a meeting.

Mr. Morgan said, "I'm making notes and will be going over them with my County Manager."

Mr. Harris added, "I want to make sure I see District IV Commissioner Everett Phillips, eye ball to eye ball."

Mr. Harris wanted to know where the County officials were.

Mr. Morgan said, "The County Manager had a scheduling conflict and Commissioner DePratter was out of town." Mr. Morgan did not mention Commissioner Phillips.

Mr. Harris said, "I took off work. I took off work. I don't want to hear about scheduling conflicts, in an emergency situation from an Emergency Management man. I work for a living. That's how you get paid is from me workin' payin' your salary. Make it happen."

The meeting ended a short while later. Mr. Morgan stayed and answered everyone's questions.

Coming in Part III: No records were kept. No record of calls from those on private roads

Part II: Irma: Public Outrage, Non-Responsive Public Officials, Passing the Buck, County Not Talking

Part I: Debris at Record Volume, Resident's Not Advised of Extended Pickups, Thousands Squandered on Ad

Comments  (to add a comment go here) 

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Meeting Calendar
No need to be confused - Find links to agendas and where your participation is welcome.

Make a comment • click here •
All comments are displayed at the end of the article and are moderated.