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Columbia County Observer

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FEMA Disaster Recovery Center set for test run tomorrow; Opening In Full Swing Mon. at 8 AM

Look for the sign for the Cracker Barrel on US 90. This is located in the Westfield Square Shopping Center. Look for the Cracker Barrel on the east side of the interstate. There is a long strip shopping center. At the end of the shopping center, where the Foot Doctor used to be, is where FEMA will be located. The official address is 484 SW Commerce Drive, Suite 145, Lake City.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – On the evening June 25, 2012, Columbia and Suwannee Counties were being pelted with rain and were under a tornado watch. No one knew that on that night and the following nights, Columbia and Suwannee counties would experience what the water management district would proclaim as a 500 year event. On Tuesday, July 3, Columbia County was declared a disaster area. On July 4, Suwannee County was declared a disaster area. On July 5, the FEMA/Suwannee County Disaster Recovery Center opened. Finally, scheduled for Monday is the opening of the FEMA/Columbia County DRC. Show up tomorrow. According to FEMA's Graham Bingham, if FEMA has their communication bugs worked out you will be able to receive assistance tomorrow. He told the Observer, "FEMA does not turn people away."

Sky map to FEMA +++ Click here

Why the delay?

The reason(s) for the delay are not entirely clear. There are a few stories.

Bad Planning

In Suwannee County, FEMA was given a public building to use. On July 5, one day after Suwannee County was declared a disaster area, the FEMA Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) was up and running in a county facility assisting those who needed assistance.

Columbia County's commissioners have never made it a priority to obtain buildings for public use. Instead, the County's good old boy commissioners prefer to lease buildings, such as the Supervisor of Elections Building, from other Columbia County good ole boys, with the result that Columbia County may be the only county in Florida without a dedicated meeting room.

FEMA was originally shown the only public space available in the County for a DRC, the Richardson Community Center. No one agreed that was acceptable. Richardson is in the middle of nowhere and not convenient to anybody, except local residents.

FEMA was then shown two other locations in shopping centers along US 90. Owned by out-of-towners, recalcitrant owners and time constraints nixed those locations.

On July 4th, the Westfield Group's Scot Stewart came to the County's rescue and donated two store fronts in its Westfield Square Shopping Center.

The County Attorney and the contract: The wrench in the spokes?

The contract logistics: FEMA is contracting with the County; the County is contracting with the Westfield Group.

According to one source, it appears that on Wednesday, July 4th, FEMA had supplied a contract to the County. With time of the essence, instead of giving it his stamp of approval, County Attorney Marlin Feagle added a couple of sentences at the end and then sent it back to the FEMA attorney.

It is not clear whether County Attorney Feagle added the language on July 5th, Thursday, or on July 6th, Friday, or for that matter, when the paperwork was sent back to FEMA's attorneys for their review and approval.

Twelfth hour law is nothing new for Columbia County.

On Friday, at approximately 5:30pm, County Manager Dale Williams showed up at the Emergency Operations Center. There were no contracts. County Manager Williams inquired and was told that the County Attorney had added new language to the contracts.

It was late Friday afternoon. It is not clear where County Attorney Feagle was or if anyone could reach him.

County Manager Williams told the Observer, "I offered to remove it [the language]. I said, "'Look, if this is a holdup and this is going to be problematic and is going to delay the center and opening, I will remove it and take responsibility for it.'" They said it is okay."

County Manager Williams thought the DRC was going to be open today, Saturday.

County Manager Williams added, "We didn't get the contracts until after Suwannee's [DRC] was open."

Earlier in the day, FEMA's Bingham told the Observer, "There are some things over which we have no control. There is paperwork to sign. There is legal stuff to do. And sometimes that's what delays you."

Mr. Bingham continued, "We are guests of the state and the county. We do what we can do, but there are some things that have to happen at the state and local level that we don't have any control over."

First thing Saturday morning, Columbia County's PIO told the Observer, "On Thursday, I was told that they were going to have a soft opening on Friday. And a hard opening Saturday. At the time that is what we were being told."

County Manager Williams also explained that the County's Emergency Management Department entered into an agreement with the coalition of food and shelter providers that will be located close by to the Disaster Recovery Center.

Safety Division Manager, David Kraus added that Red Cross, Meridian Healthcare, DCF, social services -- all the assistance agencies will be under one roof.

The Westfield Group also donated this space.

The communications trailer

FEMA supplies its own communications. This was a nationwide FEMA decision after they were ripped off while providing disaster assistance during the tornadoes.

As of today, Saturday, a communications trailer is headed to Columbia County from Atlanta. No explanation has been forthcoming regarding why the communications trailer is not already in Columbia County.


Disaster recovery centers are open in the following counties: Suwannee; Wakulla; Baker.

According to FEMA's Graham Bingham, if one lives in an area that has been declared a disaster area, you can receive help at any FEMA DRC.

All FEMA disaster recovery centers are open seven days a week 8 AM to 6 PM.

Safety Division Manager David Kraus said, "I would encourage everybody to go ahead and register as early and as quickly as possible. The sooner you register the closer to the front of the list you will be."

FEMA's 800 number is: 800-621-3362.

All FEMA information can be reached from here.

Barbara Jeffords Lemley contributed to this article


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