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Picture of storm damage left by Hermine in Hernando becomes clearer

HERNANDO BEACH — Now that the wet carpet and padding have been dragged to the curb and the fallen tree branches have been sawed and stacked, the larger impact of Hurricane Hermine on Hernando County has begun to reveal itself.

Emergency management officials have announced a preliminary damage estimate to private property of $7.79 million and have filed paperwork seeking examination by state damage assessment teams that could lead to a federal disaster declaration and public assistance for residents.

At the same time, the office is compiling information about the financial impact of the storm on public resources, including damage to infrastructure and staff time required before, during and after Hermine. Those costs would have to top $616,000 to make Hernando County potentially eligible for federal assistance, according to Cecilia Patella, emergency management director.

Patella's six-member staff alone worked 489.5 hours during the storm, and other numbers are still being compiled. The work is not yet complete because Patella has long-term responsibility for helping residents as they apply for assistance if a disaster determination is made.

In the short term, she also has some explaining to do because not everyone has been pleased with the job done by emergency management during the hurricane.

At a public hearing Tuesday regarding the county's 2016-17 budget, where much of the discussion centered on whether the County Commission should raise the property tax rate to provide additional staffing for Sheriff Al Nienhuis, who oversees emergency management, longtime Hernando Beach resident Fran Baird blistered the sheriff for falling down in his duty to protect residents in her neighborhood and others in coastal Hernando County.

While Baird praised the post-storm efforts of commissioners Diane Rowden and Nick Nicholson, she said she saw no presence from the sheriff's staff before Hermine hit.

"A lot of people's houses were flooded,'' she said. "I'm disappointed that we had no warning out there.''

Baird said she fled the rising floodwaters after she was alerted by a neighbor — but that was about midnight, as the rain bands associated with Hermine were buffeting the coast. Baird said her son had to be rescued by a roofing company truck.

She said she didn't understand why emergency management didn't have large vehicles on hand to deal with the higher-than-expected storm surge.

"You need to improve your services in emergency management on the west coast of Hernando County,'' Baird told Nienhuis.

Nienhuis, who was at the hearing, did not respond to Baird's comments.

Nicholson said residents have requested an emergency siren system, and Rowden said the issue would be discussed during a County Commission meeting on Monday. Patella said she would respond to questions about her staff's response at that time.

On Wednesday, she declined to identify the two structures — one a business and one a residence — that were deemed to have been destroyed in a preliminary report on storm damage. She said the initial examinations might be reconsidered, and those structures might end up being repairable.

Also still unknown are the official numbers for storm surge and rainfall in Hernando. The estimate for storm surge was about 5 feet, Patella said, but without gauges on the coastline those numbers would need to be confirmed by state emergency management teams. The highest wind gust measured at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport was 53 mph.

Although official rainfall totals were not available, Patella said it appeared Hernando received less rain than either Pasco or Citrus counties.

Overall, she said, Hermine was not as destructive as the March 1993 no-name storm.

"There definitely could have been an impact a lot worse inland,'' she said. "But obviously along the coastline, there was a lot of impact.''

There was no damage to roads or bridges other than minor erosion and potholes. But the county parks at both Bayport and Pine Island were closed, though they are expected to reopen by this weekend. The fishing pier at Bayport, however, will be closed indefinitely, according to Virginia Singer, the county's public information manager.

Residents in coastal communities can leave their storm debris at the curb for pickup by the company contracted by emergency management, Grubbs Emergency Services.

The Sheriff's Office also is reminding residents to contact their insurance companies to report damage, the first step before the public assistance process can begin. Also, officials said, residents with damage should report it to emergency management and remember to verify the licenses of any companies hired to do repairs.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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