Sunday, January 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Gov. Rick Scott says crews assessing Tropical Storm Debby's damage to seek federal emergency aid

NEW PORT RICHEY — Deep inside the building that's been Pasco's emergency command center since Sunday, Gov. Rick Scott leaned over a table covered with maps and photos of the damage.

"How many homes are still evacuated?" he asked.

Annette Doying, director of emergency management for Pasco County, said she couldn't give him a solid number. The evacuation zone earlier this week from Tropical Storm Debby in southwest Pasco had 7,000 addresses. There were other pockets of severe flooding, in Hudson, in Port Richey, in Trinity, where residents were also evacuated.

"People are trickling back in, but we know that we have a handful of mobile home communities that are still completely vacated and will be vacated," said Doying, who was weary. She was diagnosed with pneumonia on Saturday. Debby hit Sunday. Doying, like hundreds of Pasco's law enforcement and emergency workers, has had little sleep.

"I suspect we will find those homes are destroyed," she told the governor, "and we will have lost entire communities."

Scott came to Pasco on Friday morning to learn how the county fared in the storm, which dumped more than a foot of rain in some areas. He said 20 teams of local, state and federal crews began assessing storm damage in nine Florida counties Friday. There are three teams examining beach erosion in Pasco and Pinellas counties.

The assessment might lead to Scott asking for federal disaster aid.

"We are going to do everything we can to help each community across our state get back to work as quickly as possible," Scott said.

While Scott has shunned federal dollars in other instances, including money tied to health care reform and funding for high-speed rail, he said seeking disaster aid is another story.

"It all depends on the issue," Scott said. "This is what you pay your tax dollars for."

Doying said federal aid would "absolutely help" the citizens of Pasco. She fears many residents don't have flood insurance and what happened this past week was a major flood event. The Anclote River is usually at a depth between 6 and 10 feet. Flood stage is 20 feet, which is where it was Friday. At its peak on Tuesday, it was at 27.4 feet.

She said Pasco needs to have suffered $1.8 million in damages to qualify for federal funds.

"We had that on Sunday," the first day of the storm, she said.

Her office previously estimated Debby caused $1.5 million in damages to homes and $4 million in damages to businesses, but Doying said those numbers will rise. She expects to have new assessment figures next week.

"Hopefully there are some federal additional dollars available," Doying said to the governor, who nodded and said "yes."

Scott heard from Pasco's responders about the first hours and days of the storm, the water rising quickly and people needing rescued. Pasco Fire Chief Anthony Lopinto told Scott that his crews "were confronted with challenges they had never been confronted with before."

And by that he not only meant flooding, but animals and other creatures.

"They were knee-deep in water and they had to literally fight off alligators that were between the crews and the homes," Lopinto said of a house fire Monday night on Stockman Road in New Port Richey. Firefighters had to use poles to push two alligators aside so they could fight the blaze.

Scott peppered officials with questions about the local impact of the storm, including how many people were still in shelters (19 on Friday being transferred to temporary housing) and whether there had been any storm-related fatalities (one man drowned in the Anclote River flooding at Elfers). He noted that in Live Oak, the flooding came so fast and fierce that people had to be rescued from trees.

"Your heart goes out to these families," Scott said.

Scott said Debby was one of the earliest hits Florida has sustained in a hurricane season.

"Hopefully we won't have anything else this year," he said.

After the briefing, Scott visited Seven Springs Travel Park, a mobile home park on Old County Road 54 in New Port Richey that was still evacuated. The owner hoped residents could return soon. Then Scott's caravan crossed the road to Susie's Too, a restaurant that was closed for three days because the parking lot was a pond.

Scott toured Elfers Parkway, which still had areas under water, before leaving the county for other engagements in Tampa Bay. Doying said Pasco is going to be dealing with the damage from Debby for a very long time. Many roads were damaged, as well as nearly 30 county buildings and likely hundreds of homes and businesses. She expects reports of sinkholes to increase.

Residents of Suncoast Gateway Mobile Village in Port Richey were still without power Friday, as much of the retirement community was still under water. The owner hoped residents could come home this weekend.

"We can't forget that people will be recovering from this incident, small as it was, localized as it was, they will be recovering for months," Doying said. "And we will be there for them."

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