Judy Ellis was driving home from the supermarket last week when she saw something unusual in her neighborhood centered around a country club: the grass on the street median was almost knee-high.
In the 30 years she’s lived in Lakewood Estates south of downtown St. Petersburg, the grass was always cut, the roads were always paved and she saw city crews maintaining the area “all the time,” she said.
“I know your whole department is up to its armpits in dead fish,” Ellis, president of the Lakewood Estates Civic Association, wrote in an email to the city’s public works administrator, Claude Tankersley. “... but if there is an opportunity, the grass on the big median at Columbus/Fairway/35th Terr(ace) is high enough to conceal a gnu (a species of large African antelope) or a zebra.”
In his response, Tankersley said that because Red Tide had besieged the city’s shoreline, all median mowing throughout the city had been halted — as were several other city services. There will be a delay in some maintenance even after the Red Tide outbreak ends, he said, but Lakewood Estates would be on the list.
“I just want to set reasonable expectations,” he wrote back.
When some St. Petersburg employees return from shoreline cleanup duty to their normal jobs, they’ll be met with a backlog of services that the city has halted during the all-hands-on-deck approach to this year’s historic Red Tide outbreak. The crews have worked shifts that last as long as 10-12 hours, seven days a week to collect dead marine life from the city’s shoreline, according to city officials.
An initial review from the city found the backlog of city services increased by four weeks due to Red Tide cleanup, city spokesperson Ben Kirby said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
There are 18 city services affected in total, including a trash clean-up program, alley maintenance and repairs, street sweeping, sidewalk maintenance, sign replacement and construction projects, Kirby said.
Several city employees said they cannot talk on the record without approval from a supervisor.
But for many throughout the city, the main concern lies less with park and street maintenance and more with the city workers who are scooping fish in the hot sun.
“Although it is an issue, in a way, we completely understand, because no one wants to live in an area where they can’t go outside because it smells like rotten fish,” said Corey Givens Jr., president of Lakewood Terrace Neighborhood Association.
Other neighborhood associations — including Old Southeast and Historic Uptown — have not noticed any delays, according to staff with those neighborhood associations.
“Our bottom line is an appreciation for their efforts on the fish-kill cleanup effort,” said Bill Dahl, president of the Old Southeast Neighborhood Association.
The city estimated the delayed maintenance and repairs will cost about $1.2 million. The City Council passed a resolution calling for Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency, and several council members said that would free up more resources from the state to help take the load off of local municipalities. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman also called on DeSantis to declare a state of emergency, but his plea was met with a sharp rebuke from the governor, who accused him of trying to score “cheap political points.”
DeSantis did not declare a state of emergency because he said the state can still allocate money for cleanup efforts without an emergency declaration. The state has allocated $2.1 million to aid cleanup efforts as of early last week.
Jabaar Edmond of Child’s Park has followed all of this — the political back-and-forth, the city’s stretched resources and the grim predictions for this year’s bloom — but he hasn’t heard much about his biggest concerns: What are the longer-term health impacts on the workers cleaning up the fish? Do they feel comfortable asking for a break?
“I think the health of the workers supersedes any concern that I have about services,” he said.
The Child’s Park Neighborhood Association, where Edmond is vice president, helps organize cleanups — along with the city and nearby organizations — as part of a mission not to solely rely on services that are often-delayed in Child’s Park. After Hurricane Irma, when Child’s Park was one of the last areas to get electricity turned back on, community leaders knocked on doors to let residents know of a resiliency hub in the recreational center, Edmond said. In March 2020, when Florida shut down due to COVID-19, the neighborhood association worked with volunteers to sew masks and hand them out, he said.
Edmond said there’s an “epidemic of trash dumping” in Child’s Park, and cleanups can serve as a community building event. They can also help persuade local leaders to invest in more resources, such as a trash amnesty program, he said. But it was the mounds of trash he collected on a recent Saturday, along with the cough he said he experienced from Red Tide, that shifted his attention to the city’s cleanup crews.
“We’re filling up these huge trash bins,” he said. “So I’m imagining how we dispose of all these fish. Are they incinerating? Is that healthy? I mean, I don’t know. It’s a whole can of worms for me.”