City Watch After the Storm: Updates and Status

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Irma postscript

Too many homes and businesses still don’t have power. Debris clogs too many streets.

Yet Boca Raton and Delray Beach are not Cudjoe Key or Naples. Neither city had structural damage or flooding, though Boca Raton did lose about 80 feet of beach. City services are resuming. Boca Raton’s contractor will start picking up debris on Friday. In Delray Beach, pickup will begin Monday. Curfew hours keep shrinking.

And before we get to the details of Hurricane Irma’s affect on both cities, have good thoughts about the employees of Boca Raton and Delray Beach who worked before and during the storm—and are still working—to keep streets safe and the cities functioning as well as possible. This responsibility meant leaving their families. They slept in the emergency operations centers. These people, whom uninformed critics often refer to caustically as “bureaucrats,” have been the best sort of public servants over the last few days.

Delray’s near-miss

Fortunately, neither Boca Raton nor Delray Beach had to issue a boil-water ordinance because of Hurricane Irma. Several cities in Broward County had to warn residents not to drink the water.

Delray Beach, however, barely avoided what Mayor Cary Glickstein said “could have been a real health crisis” with the city’s sewage system.

Cities move sewage to treatment plants with lift stations, so named because they “lift” the sewage from point to point. Otherwise, it would back up.

When storms threaten, Delray Beach and Boca Raton rotate generators among the lift stations to keep them operating until power is restored. Before Irma, Delray Beach had 30 generators for its 130 lift stations. Boca Raton has 65 for the city’s 240 lift stations.

Boca Raton had no problems. In Delray Beach, however, 30 generators weren’t enough. On Sunday, power failures disabled 70 percent of the lift stations. The city emailed residents, asking them to “refrain from using water other than to drink. This would include bathing, toilet flushing, dish washing and running any kind of water that goes down a drain or into a toilet.”

Fortunately, Delray Beach Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus was able to get another 20 generators. If the system had failed, sewage could have backed up into homes and onto streets. Glickstein said he called Gov. Rick Scott, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel and state Sen. Jeff Clemens on Sunday seeking help finding generators or speeding power restoration.

The city is still asking residents of Delray Beach and Highland Beach—for which Delray provides sewage service—to restrict use of the system. Each bit of progress on power, however, brings the city closer to normalcy. Officials will advise when the system is at full capacity.

“It was dicey for 36 hours,” Glickstein said. The city’s first responders “performed exceptionally well.” He criticized previous administrators for leaving Delray Beach short of “collateral equipment” for storm response.

The power issue

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Glickstein and Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie have found it frustrating that most of the questions and complaints from residents concern a service over which they have no control—electricity.

Haynie has been on “several” conference calls with Florida Power & Light. The company has staged 200 trucks at Florida Atlantic University that are treated like the cavalry when they arrive in a neighborhood.

FPL executives keep touting the $3 billion investment in the grid since the hurricane years of 2004 and 2005. The problem, Haynie said, is that “we don’t see” the results of that investment. FPL said the investments went into power transmission—getting power out to areas. Residents, though, care most about distribution—getting that power into their homes.

FPL promised a website that would allow homeowners to enter their address and find out when the company estimated that power would be restored. Instead, customers have received a message saying that FPL is working very hard. “It’s all been frustrating at best,” Haynie said, saying that FPL has come up short in areas of “transparency and outreach.” Glickstein said the state’s largest utility has done “a poor job of managing expectations.”

With no reliable information, Haynie and others can’t explain to Boca Teeca residents why half of the community has power and the other half doesn’t. They can’t offer any relief to the condo owners on A1A who have been calling.

As of late Monday, half of Boca Raton remained without power, according to a city spokeswoman. Glickstein estimated the same for Delray Beach, though he cautioned that his calculation was “anecdotal.” The spokeswoman said 51 percent of Boca Raton’s traffic lights lacked power. Fourteen percent were running on generators. Elsewhere, police officers had placed stop signs that Chief Dan Alexander said were helping. From here on, though, more people will be getting out and more residents who left will be returning. With luck, more traffic signals will be operational soon.

FPL conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theories grow out of news stories. It’s happened after Irma.

The rumor on social media was that FPL was restoring power first in Republican neighborhoods. FPL is a major political patron of the GOP governor.

As of late Wednesday, though, Republican Haynie still had no power in Camino Gardens. Glickstein was without lights in Delray Beach. County Commissioner Steven Abrams, also a Republican, got his power back at 4:38 a.m. Wednesday. That’s when power came back for many residents in his Palm Beach Farms neighborhood.

Debris removal

Aside from electricity, the major issue facing Boca Raton and Delray Beach is debris removal.

As noted, pickup will start soon. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the cities for the cost of hiring contractors. The cities are asking residents to separate yard waste, such as tree branches, from building material, such as fences, and to place the debris on lawns, not streets. Haynie and Glickstein said their contractors will make runs until all the debris is gone.

As Haynie said, Boca Raton “prides itself on being a tree city.” Even though Irma did its greatest damage elsewhere in Florida, parts of Boca Raton are very messy.

In many cases, residents added to the problem. Some who should have trimmed their trees before hurricane season did so as Irma approached. City crews who should have been preparing their homes had to make extra trips to collect as much of the vegetation as they could. Branches left out can become missiles and endanger neighbors.

Tree damage was especially bad in neighborhoods like Old Floresta, where the foliage is so thick and established that trimming can be tough. Like similar neighborhoods in parts of the country where snowstorms can happen, however, trees that overwhelm power lines post problems not for the owners of the trees but also for neighbors.

“We all have the responsibility,” Haynie said, “of understanding” such potential issues and fixing them. The city already is planning more educational outreach next year in advance of hurricane season.

Budget hearing delays

Irma disrupted civic life in Boca Raton during a particularly busy period.

Every September, cities and counties in Florida hold the required two hearings on their budgets that take effect Oct. 1. Delray Beach sneaked in its first budget hearing on Sept. 7, three days before Irma hit. The city can hold the second hearing during its meeting next Tuesday.

Boca Raton, however, had scheduled the first budget hearing for two days ago. Obviously, that didn’t happen. So Gov. Rick Scott allowed local governments until Oct. 6 to approve budgets. Boca Raton will hold that first hearing at the Sept. 25 city council meeting.

This month, though, brings the High Holy Days of Judaism—Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 21 and Yom Kippur on Sept. 30. Three of the five city council members are Jewish. So the city may have to schedule around those possible conflicts. The budget likely won’t be controversial, but Irma has scrambled the process for approving it.

Delray taxes

Speaking of Delray Beach’s budget, Irma presumably discredited one idea that arose last year.

A few city gadflies annually complain that the tax rate is roughly double what Boca Raton levies. They suggest that the city commission raid the reserve fund to lower the rate, even if by only a symbolic amount.

But one reason that cities and counties in Florida must keep reserves strong is hurricanes. Local governments may face large unplanned expenses if a storm hits. Mayor Glickstein told me Wednesday, after a meeting with city administrators, that the estimate for Irma is $10 million.

Also as noted, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburses cities for disaster expenses—75 percent in most situations and 90 percent for major disasters. Cities, though, must front the money, which comes from reserves. Reimbursement can take a year. As Glickstein notes, “Everyone is now behind (Hurricane) Harvey.”

Under its proposed 2017-18 budget, Delray Beach has $37 million in reserves. Glickstein will argue that the commission shouldn’t shift any of that money to operating expenses. Irma reinforces that argument.

Midtown meeting rescheduled

Because Irma forced Boca Raton to cancel this week’s Community Redevelopment Agency meetings, city council workshop and city council meeting, the city will add all items on those agendas to the Sept. 25-26 meeting schedule. One of those items—Midtown—might make for a long meeting on its own. Consider it a doubleheader.

Also on the agenda could be a report from the city’s consultant on the downtown government campus. Irma will influence that discussion.

The city’s libraries reopened Wednesday, offering an air-conditioned destination for parents with hot, bored children. Both libraries are built to withstand Category 4 hurricane winds. The city’s building on North Congress Avenue serves, among other things, as the emergency operations center and is built to Category 5 standards.

Any downtown campus plan would include City Hall and the police department. Both should be built to similar standards. Haynie remarked Wednesday how lucky Boca Raton is to have the North Congress building. It fed all the people doing hurricane prep, response and recovery.

In addition, the city got many calls from residents without garages asking where they could park cars safely. That could influence discussion about including a parking garage in the campus plan.

Delray emergency op center?

Then there’s Delray Beach’s emergency operations center that isn’t.

The city uses the main fire-rescue station for this purpose. During Irma, the building leaked. Mayor Glickstein told me that at the second budget hearing he would seek money for an emergency operations center that is Category 5-rated. “It may be something that you never want to use,” Glickstein said, “but when you do, it’s of critical importance. If we don’t fund it, we are negligent.”

And stories

A hurricane brings out plenty of the best and worst in South Florida. Someone stole my son’s three tanks of propane. Someone tried to steal a neighbor’s generator.

Then there’s this story from Delray Beach.

According to Mayor Glickstein, the city received nearly 2,000 police and 800-plus fire-rescue Irma-related calls between Saturday and Wednesday. One came from the parents of a 4-year-old who had stopped breathing. Two paramedics responded, and stayed with the family during the height of the storm. The child, Glickstein said, is “fine.”

Power status

Delray Beach City Hall got power back Wednesday and reopens today, though with limited services. Among other things, contractors need permits for damage repair.

Boca Raton City Hall did not have power as of Wednesday evening but will reopen today using a backup generator. So will the building department, which works at the site of the old downtown library.

As with Delray Beach, Boca Raton had been getting questions about permits. Life throughout both cities isn’t back to normal, but life is moving forward. The recovery from Irma has begun.


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