Hurricane Irma left its destruction in Columbia County, and for the most part, those in charge were able to deal with it. Some affected by the record- breaking flood waters of the Santa Fe, however, were still struggling some three weeks after the storm. A special meeting held at OSFR headquarters on Oct. 4, 2017 (see “Irma Aftermath Meeting at Rum 138“) brought together for the first time some government agencies and citizens who were not able to be heard earlier.
This group included principally the Suwannee River Water Management Distict, and also DEP, and FWC, and Columbia County Emergency Management. Notably absent were Columbia County Commissioners. Irma has uncovered many places where our county needs to improve in its services:
“And, Columbia County is asleep at the helm. They need to be more responsive to the public during flooding. And they need to track every phone call and the concern that comes in no matter if they are a private road or not. If you live on a private road, we found out that they do not even log your phone call if you call about flooding.” Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, OSFR advisor.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
South county waters won’t recede
Residents want county to pump private road, but the law prohibits it.
By CARL MCKINNEY
With Southeast Julia Terrace still five feet underwater weeks after Hurricane Irma hit, Tyler Harris has
to drive through a neighbor’s property to reach his home. Despite H a r r i s ’ pleas to Columbia
County officials, the window of opportunity for a public work s crew to legally clear the flooded
road is now closed.
Julia Terrace is a private road, meaning the county cannot perform maintenance
on it under state law. That rule is relaxed during a declared state of emergency, but the county’s ended Sept. 28. Harris, who works as a maintenance technician at at North Florida Regional Medical Center in
Gainesville, returned home after a long shift Sept. 12. “That’s the day the water started to come in,” Harris
Having expected the flooding, Harris had mowed an alternate access route on an easement he negotiated
for with his neighbor. When the family tried to evacuate around 3 a.m. Sept. 13, that pathway was
impassable too, Harris said.
“The water was going up so high so fast,” Harris said. “We were trapped.”
Around 6 a.m. Sept. 13, Harris got permission from another neighbor to clear a path with a chainsaw and
machete, allowing the family to escape the property.
The week of Sept. 18, Harris started calling
authorities to ask for their help pumping water out of Julia Terrace. At first, Harris reached out to Columbia County’s emergency operations center. Shayne Morgan, the emergency management director, instructed him to reach out to the public works department, Harris said.
Harris said he passed the information along to his neighbors and called public works four times between
then and Oct. 4. Public works staff told him there was nothing they could do because Julia Terrace is a
private road, Harris said. “They were told to not document private roads,” Harris said.
Harris returned home around Sept. 30. During the fourth call, Harris said an engineer told him there was no documentation for any of the previous complaints. “They had no record of my road being flooded,” Harris said.
About six other families from the area also called public works multiple times about Julia Terrace, which remains roughly five feet underwater, Harris said. “We’re just looking for help,” Harris said. “We’re trying to do something we can’t do on our own.”
Harris said his main problem is the lack of communication between officials. “It’s inexcusable,” Harris said. “All of this is inexcusable.” Public Works Director Kevin Kirby said his department doesn’t log complaints
related to private roads because state law forbids government entities from working on them. “I want to help everybody, but I’m bound by statute,” Kirby said. In previous years, Kirby said he believed a declared
state of emergency gave him the authority to direct a public works crew to work on a private road.
But before Hurricane Irma hit, County Attorney Joel Foreman advised the county commission that it would have to vote to approve each private road maintenance request during the state of emergency. “Mr. Foreman’s advice was more rigid than the way we had operated in the past,” Kirby said. “I was just
trying to do the right thing based on the attorney’s advice.”
Kirby said he will prevent similar issues in the future by having public works log maintenance orders related
to private roads.
Julia Terrace is in Commissioner Everett Phillips’ district. Harris said he sent an email to Phillips after the
state of emergency ended. Phillips said Harris should have contacted him by phone before then. “If they’d have called me and told me that, we’d have been pumping water down there,” Phillips said. “They just emailed
me, and I don’t get email where I live.”
When the county commission allowed the local state of emergency to expire during a Sept. 28
emergency meeting, the board’s decision ran contrary to Phillips’ plea for a seven-day extension.
Phillips said he didn’t have time to bring the roads in his district to the board for a vote because he was out of town.
Harris spoke before the county commission Thursday night, asking for it to do anything within its power to clear Julia Terrace. Commissioner Ron Williams asked Foreman if such a project might be allowed since Harris attempted to file a complaint during the state of emergency.
Foreman said that likely wouldn’t matter because the board has to vote on a private road maintenance
proposal during the state of emergency. Commissioners directed Foreman to solicit an opinion on the issue from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. Foreman said he is willing
to research the matter, but doubts there will be any leeway.