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All Hands On Deck: Workers Canvass County Looking For Damage

Nick Evans

Hurricane Irma has passed, now Florida is regrouping.  In Leon County this week, city and county workers abandoned their normal duties to go out and assess damage from the storm.

It’s Tuesday morning at the Leon County Public Safety complex.  There’s about two dozen people here broken up in teams of two.  They’ll spread out over the county looking for downed trees or other signs of damage.  Each pair is responsible for a different zip code, and they’ve been pulled from all sorts of different departments.

Rhonda Cooper runs the literacy project at the Leon County public library.  She’s teamed with Shawna Martin who works as an urban planner for the county.

Cooper and Martin got zip code 32311 in the southeastern corner of Leon County.  It stretches well beyond Tallahassee city limits, and much of the area is rural—with limited cell phone service. 

“It’s not giving you the address,” Cooper says at one point as a phone app preloaded with residences refuses to load.

“We don’t have any cell reception,” Martin says, “So we may just have to go to paper.”

Private roads present another problem.

“That one’s blue too,” Martin says about one street sign.  Private roads use blue instead of green. 

“See if you see a no trespassing sign,” she says to Cooper.

“What does it say?” Cooper mumbles to herself pulling into the drive. “This road not maintained by Leon County.  I don’t see a no trespassing sign.”

Credit Nick Evans

Cooper and Martin rumble down each unpaved byway, not clearly marked no trespassing, because collecting this data is important.  It’s part of the county’s survey for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. 

All 67 of Florida’s counties are receiving public assistance which supports the local governments’ response efforts.  But only 37 counties have gotten approval for individual assistance.  That money goes directly to homeowners, to cover damages their insurance won’t. 

Cooper, Martin and all the other crews are tallying damage to apply for that chunk of assistance, and as they crisscross their territory, Martin highlights the roads they’ve visited.

But all morning the most noticeable trend is the lack of damage.

David Devall is covered in sweat and sawdust cutting up a massive fallen limb in his front yard.  He still doesn’t have power, but he counts himself lucky.

Credit Nick Evans

“The top of this big one,” he says pointing off behind himself, “it fell on the—that’s my pump house—and knocked about half of the roof down last storm.” 

“And this time we’re just lucky it’s not as big a tree and it didn’t hit anything—no structures anyway,” he goes on, “So we were tickled about that.”

A little ways up the street Stephen Wilson didn’t fare quite as well.

“I heard of gust of wind and the tree crack and then all of the sudden it hit the roof—wham, and I was in the bed right there underneath it,” Wilson says with a chuckle.  “But it didn’t go through the roof, thank goodness.  It only it cracked—the sheetrock was hanging down.”

The lights aren’t on for Wilson yet either.  Still, he says things are getting back to normal surprisingly quickly.

“They came and cut the tree yesterday,” he says, “and the roofing guys have already been here and they’ve cleaned, covered the hole up, and they’ll be back tomorrow to finish working on it.”

Friday afternoon Emergency Manager Kevin Peters explains initial reports seem to suggest Leon County dodged a bullet.

“As of this morning—we had a couple of crews out yesterday still—we’re up to about 87 structures we’ve found that were impacted to some degree,” Peters says.  “Again, the impacts are still predominately minor.”

“We’ve found maybe a handful, four or five of those, that would qualify as major under the FEMA guidelines.”

Elsewhere in the state, the week reveals a parade of bad news: historic flooding in Jacksonville, utter destruction in parts of the Florida Keys, and eight tragic deaths at a Hollywood nursing home. 

But in Leon County store shelves are filling up, people are returning to work and kids are back in school. 

The mundane feels like a monumental blessing.  Devall and Wilson get their electricity from a co-op called Talquin, and damage on transmission lines run by Duke Energy delayed restoration by a few days.  Wednesday—they got their power back.  Devall says it’s better than Christmas.  

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.