On October 4, 2017, a meeting took place at Rum 138, hosted and organized by Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, OSFR advisor. The purpose of the meeting was to bring together and open channels of communication between service agencies and the public who has and still is suffering from the aftermath of hurricane Irma.
Principal participants were representatives from the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD), who fielded most of the questions and provided the most help to those seeking answers. These included Katelyn Potter, Communications Director, Tom Sagul, Resource Management (permitting,) and Tom Mirti, Division Director of Water Resources, who did most of the work.
Other agency representatives were present from Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Wildlife Commission and Shayne Morgan, Columbia County Emergency Management Director. Notably absent were any Columbia County Commissioners.
Several emotional citizens voiced their disappointment with public agencies in that they were unable to communicate their problems and they felt abandoned. Several were still landlocked and unable to drive from their homes, some of which were still flooded. Some claimed that the various agencies passed them off to other organizations and would not listen seriously to their messages.
One recurring complaint was that there is no monitoring area between Fort White and Worthington Springs, which leaves a large area without coverage. This was one of the hardest hit locations with record-breaking high water. Residents also expressed disappointment saying weather experts underestimated the height of floodwaters and gave them little to no warning ahead of time.
Others complained that the very agencies designated for flooding situations were closed from Friday before the hurricane until the following Wednesday, the period when most needed. Other agencies actually impeded residents working to help—Current Problems undertook a cleanup at Rum Island, but found the gates locked preventing them from transporting the large amounts of trash collected. The county also did not remove the Porta Potties and trash receptacles in order to prevent contamination of flood waters.
Columbia County received by far the most complaints, and the lone representative, Shayne Morgan, Emergency Management Director, was the target hardest hit by angry citizens. District commissioners were invited to this event but chose to remain away.
This meeting was the first opportunity for many to have a face-to-face meeting with elected officials charged with meeting the emergency needs of citizens during a disaster. OSFR commends those officials who traveled long distances after work hours to be present. The meeting was purposely ended by 8 o’clock to give time for those interested to sit down with agency representatives to discuss their personal situation.
Commendations are also due Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson for single-handedly organizing and hosting this opportunity for much-needed communication between the public and government agencies. The meeting was very timely due to the circumstances that the storm effects are still being felt and have not been resolved. Thanks also go to Doug and Merrillee Malwitz- Jipson of Rum 138 for making available their facilities for the meeting.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-