City And County Agree: Better Communication Needed In Wake Of Hurricane Hermine

Sep 6, 2016

The Tallahassee City Commission meets to discuss the response to Hurricane Hermine
Credit LHatter / WFSU News

Hurricane Hermine has taken it’s toll on Tallahassee—leaving downed trees and power lines in its wake. That’s posed logistical challenges to teams trying to restore power, and frustrating residents who have been without for days. Now  city and county leaders are trying to address those concerns. But some say the efforts come too late.

It has been a trying week for Alida Rothmel:

“I received a call from the EOC this morning, say they can bring me food. But the thing I explained is that having an autistic child, bringing food to me doesn’t stop my child from having his episodes because the house is hotter than it is outside. My youngest daughter is sick. And my son’s medications are disintegrating because of the heat and humidity in the house.”   

Rothmel, an army veteran and mom of two, lives on Gothic Drive. She lost power around 8:30 p.m. Thursday night, and has been without it ever since. Her son is autistic. And his medications are starting to spoil, due to the heat in her house. Rothmel has been reaching out to anyone—local officials, calling the city of Tallahassee every few hours, and making appeals on facebook and on twitter. By Monday afternoon, her home was still dark. So are the homes of 16,000 other Tallahassee residents.

“Own up to the mistakes and don’t talk about how Kate was so bad years ago. I was like 5 when that came through. “It you haven’t improved in 30 years, dude, you gotta be sad," said Kate Peshek. She along with several others, appeared below the Tallahassee City Commission Tuesday to address the response to Hurricane Hermine.

Many have likened Hurricane Hermine to Hurricane Kate—the last Hurricane to strike Tallahassee in 1985.

Some have lauded the response to the storm, touting the hardworking lineman working 16 hour days to get the city's 121-year-old system back up and running. There have been numerous stories of people helping people, and the Tallahassee-Leon County credit union is offering bridge loans to city and county workers impacted by the storm.

But for others, the response has not been stellar. They are frustrated with a seemingly haphazard approach to power restoration. That perception has been compounded with unclear communication from city and county officials, which led to a clash between Governor Rick Scott and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.  

“I just thought in the midst of a crisis, to communicate that level of disagreement to the public…for them to perceive there is some breakdown between local responders and the government, is unhelpful," Gillum said.

Gillum has also taken heat over comments made regarding what help the city has or has not accepted. Customers, especially without power, have grown increasingly frustrated with the pace of restoration efforts. And there have been rumors and accusations over city officials turning down offers of help. Gillum says that is not true. But he won’t say whether he thinks the backlash is political. Scott is a Republican, Gillum, a rising Democratic star.

“I’m going to leave it to the people who are observing and are going to play this whole scenario back when it’s over to make that determination," he said.

It is the city manager who makes decisions on mutual aid agreements- the deals that govern which providers will come to the aid of others during a crisis. And for every additional crew that comes to help,  a city worker is required to be present with them. Not all utility grids are the same, and the City of Tallahassee utility department says having a city worker present makes sure situations are safe. But the more people on the ground also means the number of workers available to aid in restoration gets diluted. And that can slow down work. That’s what Fernandez and City of Tallahassee Utilities Manager Rob McGarrah told officials Tuesday.

“There’s a limit to how much mutual aid we can bring in and manage with the staff we’ve got, and do it safely. We ran up close to and at that limit pretty quickly," he said.

Those limitations were not communicated quickly enough in the days immediately after the storm. Tuesday, several neighborhoods remained dark. Gillum admits, communication could have been better. And city commissioner Nancy Miller agrees.

“Our communication has not been what it should be. I am totally unhappy with that. I mean, people are calling up and hearing about all the amenities the city has to offer when they really should be hearing about when people are coming to their neighborhood," she said.

The city has started to release a list of roads and intersections it is working on. Among them:

Myers Park, Belle Vue Way, the neighborhoods around TMH, Woodville, Rhoden Cove, the Monroe and I-10 area, Old St. Augustine, Huntington Woods, Pasco Street, the Jake Gaither neighborhood, Spottswood Drive, Carraway and Hawthorne Streets, Centerville Road, the Miccosukee Co-op, Blairstone Road, and Buck Lake.

Meanwhile, local officials also struck back at rumors suggesting outside workers couldn’t aid in restoration because they weren’t unionized. Commissioner Scott Maddox says Tallahassee workers are not in a union, but most private utilities are. And commissioners also note several Northside neighborhoods remain powerless—which flies against other rumors suggesting more affluent areas had power restored first. Many local elected leaders, such as County Commissioner John Dailey are still without power.

Dailey channeled the frustration of his constituents Tuesday, many of whom are running low on battery life and patience. He questioned the city’s utility manager Rob McGarrah at a county meeting.

"So I can go out to the neighbors and say, ‘yes we are working at full capacity right now?' Correct?"

"Correct," McGarrah replied.
"100 percent full capacity, 24/7 correct?’" Said Dailey.

‘Correct," McGarrah replied."

Still officials are promising most neighborhoods will be restored by the weekend: in their words, right in time for Florida State University’s first home game.

But even after power is restored, Tallahassee's issues may not be over. FloridaPolitics.com reports incoming Senate President Jack Latvala wants a review of the city's recovery response to Hermine, and is expressing concerns about whether community-owned power companies are able to handle recovery from storms.