The light at the end of a long, dark, fire-ravaged tunnel is glimmering this week, and it’s reflected off the shine of a new trailer.
Through a coordinated effort assisted by county, state and federal officials, more than two dozen trailers for temporary housing began arriving Wednesday, to help in sheltering the 36 families displaced by the Lime Rock Road fire that ravaged Buck Street, Ridge Road and Wilderness Road June 24.
At a special meeting Monday afternoon, county officials voted unanimously to approve the purchase of 24 surplus mobile homes from the federal General Services Administration. The mobile homes were used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to shelter victims of Hurricanes Irma in the Keys.
The price tag for the temporary units $8,500 each, for a total cost, including transportation from Homestead, of $204,000. This represents a savings of 37 percent over their market value.
The county fronted the money for the trailers, but they won’t be owning them long, as they will soon be transferred into the hands of the Capital Area Community Action Agency, which will be administering their usage. Regulations restrict the purchase to government entities, which is why the county had to serve as a middle man for the transaction.
The non-profit Capital Area will oversee the units for up to six months, and provide case management to help the displaced families, including 83 children, find permanent housing, said Tim Center, CEO of the Community Action Agency.
“We’re excited that this could be a potential model for other community action programs in the state and country,” Center said. “And we’re also excited about being able to help the displaced families rebuild after the disaster.”
County commissioners sounded a hopeful note at the Monday special meeting, pleased at the comparative swiftness the deal had been completed with the help of both U.S. senators, the governor, and the staff at the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
But they weren’t without their anger, led by Commissioner Noah Lockley, who argued that Wildlands Service Inc., the Tallahassee company that handled a controlled burn that ultimately got out of control and triggered the whirlwind blaze, should be doing more.
Commissioner Cheryl Sanders said the controlled burn had been done on land owned and administered by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Chair Smokey Parrish said that once investigators from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services determined that the cause had been from the controlled burn, supposed to have been completely extinguished six days prior, Wildlands Service Inc. “lawyered up” and that it could be as long as four years before any settlement dollars flow into the affected property owners.
“We’re never going to make them whole again,” said Sanders.
“We got a lawyer,” said Lockley. “Let him send them something, and let’s we lawyer up. Let them know we ain’t playing.”
Commissioners stressed that Capital Area would be in charge of determining who would receive the FEMA trailers, with property owners topping the list of priorities. Lockley stressed that he felt renters, and even those without a documented claim to residency, should be giving priority as well.
“They didn’t ask for this,” he said. “If they were on the books or not, they were there.”
Commissioner Ricky Jones, who has served as point man on the ground for the county since the other commissioners were away at a Florida Association of Counties meeting, told Commissioner William Massey he estimated that the county had lost as much as $20,000 in asphalt road work due to the fire, lobbying their peers for help and helping direct the effort until their return.
Jones, who as a child experienced a devastating fire that burned his family out of their home, served as a quiet, reassuring presence in the days immediately following the fire, even though the affected areas are just outside his district.
He told his colleagues he was grateful to see their unified effort at this stage. “This was no tabletop exercise,” he said.
While there was not an extensive discussion about the legal ramifications of the fire, County Attorney Michael Shuler advised commissioners that they would not have legal standing in matters that involve private property owners.
“They (Wildland Services) are not going to voluntarily resolve these lawsuits,” said Shuler. He speaks with legal experience in these matters, since his family successfully secured a judgment of more than $700,000 for timberlands they owned that were destroyed from a controlled burn by the state.
Shuler said Capital Area will pay for all title costs associated with the trailer purchase, and he expected that to be completed within the next two to three weeks.
He also noted that the county has the ability to buy other equipment, such as air conditioners, from the GSA at a discount.
Massey noted that an enormous amount of household furnishings, from coffee pots and dishes to mattresses, have been accumulated thanks to the generosity of donors from throughout the region. “We could equip 10 houses,” he said.
Tress Dameron, emergency services coordinator, told commissioners that of the affected properties, 16 of them were residences owned by people who owned the land as well, while another 13 were places rented by families as their primary residence,
Four were non-primary residences, she said, with another eight places not destroyed but in need of repair. The remaining damages were of an as-yet undetermined number of sheds, outbuildings, vehicles, boats, tools and other equipment.
Land clearing by crews from four companies – Jason White, Coastline, Roberts and Roberts, and the city of Tallahassee – took place Monday and Tuesday, and things went well, according to Sheriff A.J. Smith.
He said he has three additional fifth-wheel travel trailers that have been donated to his fundraising campaign, and the first of these was given away Tuesday, to a senior woman, recently out of the hospital, who lost everything in the blaze.
Smith said he is in negotiation to buy six permanent mobile homes, all constructed to Zone 3 hurricane standards, out of the more than $106,000 his GoFundMe campaign has raised thus far.
He said his office will be determining who receives them based on need, with seniors and families with small children a top priority.
The FEMA trailers are being stored at the sheriff’s office. In addition, county officials plan to spray paint addresses on all the vehicles and boats moved offsite, so they can be identified easily for insurance purposes in the weeks ahead.
As of Monday afternoon, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis’ office had paid out 26 emergency expense claims to individuals, totaling $125,000. Claims filed undergo a final verification, so funding can be disbursed as soon as possible.