There's no official date on when federal official will declare Hurricane Sally a "major disaster" and release the floodgate of federal funds needed for long-term recovery and restoration efforts in Northwest Florida.
Still, after touring the damage in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties on Saturday, a contingent of state, local and federal officials said the declaration will likely be coming soon.
"I was just on the phone with the chief of staff at the White House, and there's no delay in the processing of that (major disaster declaration)," U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz said at a press conference Saturday. "It just takes a little bit more time, when you don't have a windstorm event, to assess the damage that individuals and businesses have encountered. But it is absolutely my expectation after talking with the White House moments ago, that that will be forthcoming."
In a series of press conferences Saturday morning and afternoon, officials detailed both the currently known scope of the hurricane damage and the efforts to help repair the local infrastructure and get critical resources to residents.
Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said deputies, the National Guard and other first responders had touched the four corners of the county ensuring citizens were safe. Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said there had been 600 rescues between Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
Morgan said it is believed one Pensacola area resident succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning after operating a generator indoors, though the cause of death has not yet been confirmed by the medical examiner. The sheriff urged all citizens to exercise caution with generators, chainsaws and on roadways as crews continuing working to get power restored.
The death is the second believed to be contributed to Hurricane Sally, after searches were called off for a missing boater on Thursday.
He also said there had been instances of looting in a few of the harder hit neighborhoods, and that law enforcement was patrolling in neighborhoods across the county regularly. He said his hope was the restoration of power would hopefully return "some semblance of normalcy."
More: Escambia desperately awaits 'major disaster' declaration from FEMA for Sally recovery
More: Gulf Power: Just under 50% of Escambia County still without power Saturday morning
Gulf Power President Marlene Santos said workers are staying on track to have 95% of customers with power restored by the end of the day Tuesday. On Saturday evening, about 80,000 homes in the two counties remained without power.
Santos said since Hurricane Sally struck, restoration crews had been focused on getting their major infrastructure such as substations and main feeder lines back in order. Now that the most of the powergrid’s “backbone” is restored, crews stationed in neighborhoods across the community will be working quickly to gets lights back in more and more homes.
“Even if you don’t see a truck in your neighborhood, we’re working backwards to get to you,” Santos said.
County officials said the search and rescue phase of operations would be wrapping up soon, but there would still be a focus on ensuring people have the resources they need.
Escambia County Emergency Manager Eric Gilmore said there would be a delivery Saturday afternoon to restock the food and water distribution sites that are burning through their supplies at the highest rate. Innerarity Point had the highest burn rate of seven local distribution centers – burning through its full supply – and Brownsville also saw its stock of food and water dwindle.
More: Escambia County will open seven food and water distribution sites Saturday
“The state is pushing its assets from as close by as Santa Rosa County, so we will get a food truck and a water truck in both those locations by noon, is what the state told me,” Gilmore said. “Of course, we'll go through another burn rate and we'll assess what's going on. But meanwhile, since we were having high intake of people to get the services, the state has pushed a load of trucks from Tallahassee to get ahead of the situation. (Tonight) we'll calculate the day's burn rate all together, go through the night and restock and be ready for tomorrow morning.”
Damage assessment are ongoing, and totals are rising quickly
Gilley said currently the county is estimating about $21 million in damage to county facilities, but said those totals would continue to grow over the weekend. She said there were about 2.3 million cubic yards of debris, which in dollars would equate to about $53 million.
Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson estimated about $20 million in damage to private property and 80,000 cubic yards of debris. The city suffered another $10 million in damage to city facilities.
Santa Rosa County on Saturday had 40 percent of assessments done and estimated $1.1 million in property damage and about $20 million in debris recovery costs ahead.
Robinson said all but 10 traffic lights had been restored in the city. In the county, Gilley said about 184 of 264 local traffic lights were now operational, and the goal was to have them all working by Sunday afternoon.
Gilley also said power and water had been restored to Escambia County Jail on Thursday evening after an outage Tuesday. In the interim, there was bottled water and a water trailer for sanitation.
There were also issues discovered at a few local assisted living facilities Friday night, including one where power issues caused the temperatures to rise to 81 degrees inside the facility. Emergency Manager Eric Gilmore said the issues were discovered during status checks by the Agency for Health Care Administration.
“We had issues at three of the facilities, but they were all mitigated before the night was over, and we got temperatures down or either generators in place with the help of the state, which was great,” Gilmore said.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said based on the damage he'd seen in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties on Saturday, he felt optimistic the county would meet the thresholds to receive "major disaster" funding from the federal government.
"I do think they'll meet the threshold. My understanding is that the local thresholds have already been met, so now it's more of a statewide number across multiple counties ... but I certainly want to feel like there's reason to believe that enough information will soon be available to authorize the president to issue that declaration."
Rubio said that although it was not part of the normal evaluation process, he was hopeful that Federal Emergency Management Agency would consider the impacts of the COVID pandemic in its decision-making process. He said local governments were already feeling the financial pinch from that emergency, and the hurricane only compounded the issues.
"They are certainly challenged by expenses that we're not able to anticipate, and combined with potential revenue drop offs going into the months and years to come, it's still hard to tell what the impact of the pandemic will continue to be in terms of revenue," Rubio said. "So I think that's a factor that while not an official one, I hope will be taken into account, because local governments need to be able to respond to this event. You cannot have debris laying around for months and months on end, it poses tremendous public safety risk, not to mention a quality of life one."
FEMA administrator confirms it may take months to repair Pensacola Bay Bridge
One of the many stops officials made during their survey of the area was a driving tour of the Pensacola Bay Bridge.
Two construction barges belonging to Skanska USA, the contractor installing the $400 million bridge, struck the bridge on Tuesday and Wednesday, collapsing several large spans of the roadway. At the press conferences, officials said the bridge was still settling, so they had been unable to fully assess the damage.
"It's quite a serious situation that impacted a number of different locations," said FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor. "I think on the Pensacola-city side, there's multiple locations where it was impacted by barges. Roadways are missing or disrupted in many different ways. I'm not an engineer, but it's gonna take some time. I think Director Moskowitz alluded to months."
More: Hurricane Sally: Skanska says removing barges before storm was neither 'safe nor feasible'
In addition to the barges that struck the Pensacola Bay Bridge, there were half a dozen other vessels that impacted or threatened the Escambia Bay Bridge, the Garcon Point Bridge, the access bridge for Naval Air Station Pensacola and various other points around the Pensacola and Escambia bays.
"We actually were able to see, on two occasions, a barge in someone's backyard, and when you buy a house even on the water you never think that a barge may come crashing into your yard and/or home," Rubio said.
Moskowitz said the state would be moving forward with bridge repairs rapidly.
"The commitment from the governor is that (the Florida Department of Transportation) is going to work with the contractor and that the restoration of the bridge is going to move forward," he said.
"As far as how that will all get paid — whether that will be something that we seek reimbursement on, whether that'll be insurance proceeds, whether that will wind up in litigation — that is all to obviously be determined. Obviously, when it comes to reimbursement, if there are other ways that money could be recouped, and we'll look at that of course, but that is not going to impede the progress that needs to be made on the bridge.
Kevin Robinson can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8527.
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