Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online newspaper

County News

Irma Pt III: Some Reports of Flooding Never Saw Daylight – What Did The 5 & Top Brass Know?

The parking lot along the Santa Fe River at 27. The river is usually about 50 ft. wide.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – During a declared state of emergency, with waters on the Santa Fe River rising putting residents and first responders at risk, District IV Commissioner Everett Phillips went on vacation. The other four County commissioners, who forgot they also represented the residents of Columbia County, shrugged and did nothing. On September 28, after Emergency Management Director Shayne Morgan told The 5 that roads around Mikesville remained "impassable" and inaccessible for assistance, 3 of the 5 voted not to extend the emergency, ending the County's ability to legally help those whose homes remained inaccessible with private roads that remained underwater.

In Irma Pt II: Public Outrage, Non-Responsive Public Officials, Passing the Buck, County Not Talking, the ire of some of Columbia County residents left in the lurch by most public agencies, but especially Columbia County, was reported.

Intentionally Invisible

Since then, facts have come to light which shed some light on what actually went on in the County as flood waters rose along the Santa Fe River, leaving those on private roads under water and invisible.

Public Works
Kevin Kirby: Asst. County Manager and Director of Public Works

During the October 5 County 5 meeting, the Director of Public Works Kevin Kirby took a lot of heat. He explained the activities of the Public Works Department during Irma.

Mr. Kirby said, "It was educated to me before we went into this event that we would not go on private property. We would take care of public infrastructure. Not by desire of this commission, but by desire of legal opinion. Not desire, but just legal opinion. We did not enter private property with the exception of last Thursday when there was a special meeting to discuss private roads."

Explaining how the phones were answered during Irma, Mr. Kirby said, "On a regular daily basis the Public Works Dept. (PW) has 4 lines that are answered between 7am and 5pm for work orders. During the state of emergency additional staff was brought in to assist with answering the phones. In addition the Citizens Information Center (CIC) was open and accepting calls which were then passed to PW."

Mr. Kirby continued, "Under the state of emergency comments have been made that a person could call in one day and a neighbor another day and there would be no record of the first call."

"When calls are received the locations are immediately entered into a software program, which indicates whether or not the property/road in question is public or private. If determined to be private, that information is relayed to the caller with an explanation that we are not allowed by Florida Statute, as explained to me, to perform any work on private property... If deemed to be private, a work order is not entered; based on what was explained to me, there's no reason to do so."

"We were inundated with private requests. Inundated. We simply were following orders."

Follow Up With Mr. Kirby

On October 6, the day after the County 5 meeting, and again today, your reporter followed up with Mr. Kirby.

It is common knowledge that for at least the past 10 years, during cataclysmic events, the County went onto private property, minus the formalities.

Your reporter asked Mr. Kirby about how it was "educated" to him that going on private property during Irma became off limits.

Mr. Kirby said there was a meeting, "I don't recall everybody that was there. It was like Ben [County Manager Ben Scott] and Joel [County Attorney Joel Foreman] and I. It was brought to my attention that to go on private property, even if there was an emergency, we had to have justification and public benefit. I took that serious."

Your reporter asked, "So that was the advice of County Attorney Foreman?"

"That's correct. I took the advice of our attorney. Yes sir."

Mr. Kirby continued, "The one thing that baffles me about this is I heard about none of it before October 3, when my staff told me we were getting calls from people that said they had called before. Those calls would not have been in the system because as I said, we were not entering calls for work orders on private roads."

Your reporter asked, "What have you done about documenting calls from folks from private property?"

Mr. Kirby answered, "The day after last week's meeting, we modified our program. Now there will be a record in the system of all the calls we receive."

County Attorney Joel Foreman

Regarding not doing work on private roads and property, County Attorney Foreman told the Observer, "The County Commission and County staff knew that County resources could not be used on private property. They've known what the process has been since Jump Street."

Everyone that the Observer spoke with did not dispute the claim that by the time Irma struck, everyone knew that working on private roads and property was off-limits.

County 5: Special Meeting
Commissioner Phillips Is Back From Vacation

District IV Commissioner Everett Phillips

On September 28, 2017, the last day of the County declared emergency, the County 5 held a special meeting to find a "public purpose" to work on private roads. Commissioners had a week to determine which roads or property in Columbia County needed a "public purpose" finding or declaration for County work approval.

County Attorney Foreman gave a rundown on the law and the Attorney General opinions.

Only Commissioner Rusty DePratter came to the meeting with a list of roads. County Attorney Foreman handled the presentation of those.

Commissioner Phillips asked, "I was out of town when all this took place last week. We're not going to be able to go beyond this point?"

County Attorney Foreman responded, "Unless you extend the state of emergency today, it will expire."

Commissioner Sylvester "Bucky" Nash, three weeks into the declared emergency, still didn't understand the meaning of "public purpose." He asked Attorney Foreman, "How do you determine a public purpose?"

Mr. Foreman explained and said he regretted that he didn't have photos of the roads.

Mr. Kirby said that the only thing he determined was the "method of repair."

Commissioner Tim Murphy asked if Irma caused the road damage.

Mr. Kirby answered, "I have no way of knowing."

Commissioner DePratter, the only one of The 5 to turn in any roads under the declared emergency said, "I have 400 private roads in Dist. II. I turned in 17. Staff went and looked at em'... I didn't turn in a hundred roads."

The 5 voted on the roads and approved most of them. Commissioner Murphy voted against every one. He didn't want public money going to fund private road repair, even though the law allowed it.

As the meeting was drawing to a close, Emergency Management Director Shayne Morgan told The 5 that the Santa Fe River was still flooding.

Commissioner Philips on Vacation
"I just happened to be out of town."

Commissioner Phillips told The 5, "I just so happened to be out of town when all this took place, when Joel sent out the email. I didn't get time to get any of my roads that need some work done. I would like to extend the state of emergency until next week and I can get my roads back to Joel where we can all look at this thing one more time. I just didn't get it. I know I got some that needs it -- that got messed up."

Mr. Phillips has had various excuses why he didn't know what was going on, even after he got back from vacation: he doesn't get phone messages; doesn't get email; doesn't have phone reception.

Emergency Management Director Morgan added, "As far as I'm concerned, with where the Santa Fe [River] is at right now, I don't have any issue, based on the river flooding as it is, a local state of emergency being continued, because there are still roads back there that are impassable and unable to get assistance to."

Mr. Phillips moved to extend the state of emergency for another week. Commissioner DePratter voted to extend, the other three of The 5 gave it the thumbs down.

Mr. Murphy wanted to know [as spoken], "Is there FEMA people visiting homes that were flooded in Columbia County as of to date. I'm gettin' all kinds of stories."

FEMA's Columbia County point man told The 5, "We've had nine people doing outreach in the County. They visited 606 homes.... 4,852 registered in Columbia County."


Last night in Mikesville, Tyler Harris and six other families were still mainly under water. They were pumping out their property to get access.

A continued state of emergency would have given them access to the County's big pumps, which is all they wanted.

County Manager Ben Scott and County Commissioner Bucky Nash did not return requests for comment.

The Columbia County 5: the legend continues

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.