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Lenny Curry: JEA crisis comms issues ‘need to be fixed’

Almost 11 months ago to the day, the JEA Board gave the utility high marks for its performance during and after Hurricane Matthew.

On Tuesday, it was time for an encore performance — as the JEA Board met, with Hurricane Irma on its mind.

After a week in which the Mayor had “stern words” for JEA CEO Paul McElroy about the pace of power restoration, words followed by criticisms from City Council members, one might have expected fireworks.

But as was the case in 2016, tensions that might have existed earlier in the recovery process had been spackled over before the board meeting. The mood on the 8th floor of the JEA Tower was one of bonhomie, with McElroy giving a thumbs up as he entered the room minutes before the meeting, and local politicians all smiles as they entered the space.

Mayor Curry lauded “the effort and the results” of JEA as being “commendable.”

“The organization, the men on the ground — they got that done … that said, we can do better,” Curry said, wanting a “plan” from management for better interaction with customers in the next “crisis” situation.

Curry referred to numerous stories where customers were led to expect they had power on, only to get home and see that wasn’t the case.

“Information that was coming in that wasn’t accurate” and “feedback that wasn’t accurate” concerned Curry.

Curry noted, in a gaggle after his remarks, that while results were overall favorable (250,000 customers restored in less than a week), that communications with storm-impacted customers needed to be stronger “to ensure information is accurate.”

“If you were one of those customers,” Curry said about those who were led to believe by corporate communications that they had power, “you’re likely still upset.”

The problem, added Curry, “needs to be fixed.”

Curry, who handpicked the current board months after his election, stands by the “oversight body” that he “picked based on expertise.”

That same board gave CEO Paul McElroy a $65,000 bonus last year after Matthew; we asked if McElroy merited a similar consideration this year.

This is, said Curry, not “the time to be talking about a bonus.”

Rather, it’s time to “finish the job.”

Jax Irma costs: ‘Equal or a bit more’ than Matthew

Monday’s Jacksonville City Council meeting saw local officials address the body regarding Hurricane Irma. Expect a big budgetary hit from this year’s storm, with infrastructural damage that is still being tallied.

That cost was buried in the mix of a few speakers on Monday, but will be the long-range policy impact of the storm.

The city’s Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa spoke about the progress of cut and toss crews and debris removal: the city’s sites are almost ready, Mousa said, to “accept debris.”

Up to a million cubic yards of debris is expected, more than Hurricane Matthew’s tally, Mousa said, before going into details of damage caused by the storm.

The city is dealing with roof and window leaks from the storm, as well as septic tank and lift station repairs, and “various infrastructure damage around the county.”

“We estimate that 33 to 50 percent of the sand we placed during Matthew has been eroded,” Mousa said.

“We’re just beginning the recovery,” Mousa said, noting that damage could be “equal or a bit more than Hurricane Matthew.”

Matthew cost the city $50M in general fund costs, and the city is still out $27M of unreimbursed FEMA costs; Mayor Curry said earlier this summer that the city could handle a Matthew-sized hit to the the general fund, though it is uncertain what choices a “bit more” costs would require.

Worth noting: the city estimated, in the wake of Matthew, that costs could be up to $100M; that estimate turned out — luckily for the city, given FEMA’s slow reimbursement, to be high.

“We’re still trying to get our arms around infrastructure damage,” Mousa said.

FEMA is in contact with the city, Mousa said, with a visit to the Emergency Operations Center Monday.

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Sheriff Mike Williams was next up, extolling cooperation among first-responders.

Williams noted there was some infrastructural damage at JSO facilities, but nothing major — some minor structural damage, yet no damaged vehicles.

Williams noted, in response to worries about looting, that residential and commercial burglaries were a bit up — and that State Attorney Melissa Nelson was handling special prosecutorial detail for those burglaries.

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Also addressing the legislators: JEA CEO Paul McElroy, whose performance was criticized roundly in the days after the storm by the Mayor and by City Council members, with Councilman Bill Gulliford offering the staunchest criticism.

Those criticisms faded, apparently, sometime over the weekend.

McElroy put forth familiar talking points, including noting that Jacksonville’s restoration started later than the rest of the state, noting that the local utility had resources from across the country.

McElroy said JEA “restored very well … in the top decile of the state.”

“During the process, we were at or ahead of the pack,” McElroy noted, an especially laudatory detail given the city’s tree canopy and large land mass.

McElroy noted that water service held up well countywide, while wastewater service was a bit dodgier — 700 of them lost power during the peak, and “most of them” had backup power.

“We lost about two million gallons,” McElroy said, adding that’s a “heck of a lot better than last year,” and that most of the failings were attributable to “double or triple contingency failure.”

Northeast Florida jobs numbers strong again in August

As Northeast Florida continues the recovery phase after Hurricane Irma’s storm surge inundated large swathes of the city, the DEO offered good news on the jobs front Friday.

Unemployment in the six-county Northeast Florida region stands at 4.2 percent, down from 5.1 percent last August, and in line with state numbers. And there are 2.5 percent more jobs in the region year over year; compared to the 2 percent population growth, that’s another encouraging indicator.

County by county, unemployment numbers are mostly trending better than the state average.

“St. Johns County had the lowest unemployment rate (3.2 percent) in the CareerSource Northeast Florida region followed by Clay County (3.8 percent), Baker County (3.9 percent), Nassau County (3.9 percent), Duval County (4.4 percent), and Putnam County (5.5 percent),” asserts the Department of Economic Opportunity.

Job growth, year over year, has been especially strong in education and health services (up 4,500 jobs), and n trade, transportation, and utilities (up 5,000 jobs) and professional and business services (+4,400 jobs).

The only sector with year over year declines: leisure and hospitality, down 900 jobs year over year.

Al Lawson is fighting for Jax FEMA funds

Rep. Al Lawson has been in Jacksonville this week, helping out with post-Irma relief efforts, and meeting with local political leaders, such as the Mayor and the City Council President.

And though he shares Mayor Lenny Curry‘s confidence that Jacksonville is financially positioned to shoulder the recovery burden until FEMA reimbursement comes through, the first-term Democrat from Tallahassee believes that FEMA needs to pay out more expeditiously — specifically regarding $26M in expected reimbursement from 2016’s Matthew.

“I talked to the Mayor,” Lawson said, “and what I told him is that I know there’s some $26 million that the city hasn’t gotten from FEMA for the last hurricane, Matthew. That’s one of the things that we’re working on to try to make sure they get those funds, because of the devastation in this area.”

Matthew’s impact was brutal on Jacksonville, with winds and rain causing $50M of direct costs to the city government.

Lawson also believes Duval suffered almost as much as anywhere else from Irma.

“In my opinion,” Lawson said, “there was more devastation in Key West and Duval than any other place. I told him I would work with Congressman John Rutherford and Vern Buchanan,” Lawson said about getting those funds.

Lawson has toured some of the most devastated areas in Jacksonville this week, such as the area near the Ribault River, and in his visits to shelters such as the Legends Center, he has spoken to people there about how FEMA can offer residential help for those who suffered damage to their homes during the storm.

“Our goal is to get the resources down here quickly as possible,” Lawson said, noting that House Speaker Paul Ryan may be in Northeast Florida next week to help that along.

Regarding backlogs with FEMA payouts, which can take years, Lawson noted that “this hurricane affected the whole state, and one of the things we need to do on the federal level is get that money released earlier.”

Conversations with Sen. Marco Rubio and others give Lawson confidence there may be the legislative will for that, a measure which would help, among others, storm-ravaged families and businesses in Florida and Texas.

Even for a city like Jacksonville, which can shoulder its burden of recovery during the years-long reimbursement process, Lawson described having to float costs while waiting for FEMA reimbursement as a “band-aid approach.”

“They really need the federal dollars because [without them] it’s going to put a tremendous strain on the budget,” Lawson said.

Lenny Curry political committee raises $239K in August, pays for travel with Shad Khan

August 2017 was the biggest fundraising month since 2015 for “Build Something That Lasts,” Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry‘s political committee.

$239,050 of new money was brought in last month, compared to almost $69,000 spent; all told, the committee has $376,820 on hand.

The total is especially notable since Curry faces no political opposition to speak of in his inevitable 2019 reelection bid. Yet fundraising seems to be in campaign season overdrive.

The biggest single donation: $40,000 from the “Making a Better Tomorrow” committee, one that — like Curry’s committee and so many others — is based in Venice under the stewardship of Eric Robinson.

Curry’s committee also scored four $25,000 donations, including one from former Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver. As well, $14,500 was brought in by JAXBIZ  — the political arm of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.

Of the $68,000+ spent, $30,000 went to Data Targeting Research, $25,000 to Meteoric Media Strategies, $5,000 to the political committee of Sheriff Mike Williams (“A Safe Jacksonville”).

As well, travel expenses totaling $1,416.29 went to Iguana Investments.

The Shad Khan company here is being reimbursed for a three city trip Curry took on Khan’s jet this summer, looking at sports-entertainment districts in different cities, exploring ideas for future development in Jacksonville.

Bucket list: Lenny Curry talks power restoration

The visual for television cameras was vivid: Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry up in a bucket truck, on the scene of a JEA restoration.

But what can’t be seen is worth noting as well: crews from all over the country, many of them responding to Jacksonville’s plight as seen on television news, coursing in to help with power restoration and vegetation removal.

That latter detail is worth noting: multiple crews in the field have described Irma restoration as more complicated than Matthew, with more time intensive jobs such as the one Curry visited in Arlington Thursday because of trees impacting lines, transformers, and other equipment.

JEA’s Mike Hightower said that some resources were on standby as an insurance policy; but with this unusual storm, JEA took some days to get up to its current level: 1,050 in the field, and 100 more coming.

Hightower noted that Gov. Rick Scott has been calling, asking what resources are needed; this is a scene seen throughout the Florida peninsula.

Meanwhile, restoration is moving along. All mainline feeders have been restored, allowing for work down the line. A foreman’s analogy: those feeders are the source, feeding smaller tributaries.

Power restoration is exacting and time-intensive, especially with men and women — many from other states, such as the mutual aide crews from South Carolina on this job — pulling 17 hour shifts.

“Crews are working their butts off,” Curry said once safely on the ground.

Curry “never questioned” their dedication to the job, he added, and was in Arlington to show “support” for the work they are doing.

Curry is still concerned about the lack of communication to customers regarding restoration.

“Customers need to know,” he said.

However, the press shop — a smaller operation than Florida Power and Light and others have — has been increasingly responsive to pressure from City Council and the Mayor, holding multiple briefings on Wednesday and Thursday to ensure that the surprisingly esoteric narrative of power restoration is told as experienced by those in the industry.

Curry was not interested in addressing his thoughts on CEO Paul McElroy, telling assembled press that he’d rather “stick where we are” and discuss restoration on the ground rather than the c-suite.

And on the ground, restoration is going well.

One worker from South Carolina — a veteran of this kind of work — said that this power restoration is “about as organized as it gets.”

Numbers as of 11:40 a.m.: 73,000 customers are out of power, down from 316,000 at peak.

Lenny Curry ‘frustrated’ with lack of clarity on power restoration timetable

FloridaPolitics.com patched into a call Tuesday involving the Jacksonville City Council and a representative of the Mayor’s Office; the hot topic was JEA power restoration.

A representative of the Mayor’s Office noted that Curry had been “stern” with JEA CEO Paul McElroy, whose storm restoration efforts seemed to be moving slowly Tuesday. More than 163,000 customers remain in the dark.

Numbers have been trending down since: 108,000 were without power as of Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.. But the question remained: why was Curry “stern” with McElroy and was he satisfied with forward movement in the restoration process?

Curry noted that “power restoration and water” were pressing priorities for sweltering Jacksonville residents, before addressing the substance of a call only FloridaPolitics.com had access to on Tuesday.

“Anytime you are in a situation where you need results, those internal conversations happen. That’s just what teams do. You push each other. I’m going to continue to push,” Curry said.

The mayor described himself as “frustrated” even as he acknowledged the “men and women out working very hard to restore power … cutting trees and removing them. These folks are putting their own lives at risk to get our power up and running.”

“They’ve made great progress, there’s no doubt about that. But if you are without power,” Curry said, “you want to understand with great clarity what the expectations are.”

“So I’m frustrated that there’s not been as much clarity as I would like,” Curry said, letting customers know “what to expect” from power restoration timetables.

“If it’s going to be today, tell them it’s going to be today. If it’s not, they may not be happy about it, but tell them it’s not going to be today.”

Curry has wrestled with JEA issues since he became mayor in 2015, including making then-controversial moves to replace JEA Board members appointed by his predecessor.

Among the problems at the time: talking points prepared ahead of a board meeting, which would greenlight a pay hike for JEA CEO Paul McElroy, whose performance has been under scrutiny in the wake of Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Irma each knocking more than half the city out of power.

Kim Daniels asserts again that Irma striking Florida was God’s will

Rep. Kim Daniels was among the myriad Jacksonville politicians at a Wednesday presser promoting an Irma relief fund.

However, she was the only one who had claimed that “prophets” knew that Irma would hit Florida.

“Nothing happens except God reveal it to prophets first,” Daniels observed as the death-dealing superstorm enveloped the peninsula.

We asked Daniels about these comments, and her responses were worthy of quotation in full. To sum, she stands by the claim.

“I wouldn’t post it on Facebook if I didn’t believe it,” Daniels said, feet away from where a massive relief fund was being rolled out for the storm she said prophets knew would happen.

“That’s for spiritually-minded people,” Daniels said, “and you can’t explain spiritual things to carnally-minded people. And so if I was in a church, I would talk about the prophetic, but out here it’s not in order.”

“And I’m sure you won’t understand it,” Daniels added.

“Because right now, I believe that this is not the proper place, because you often talk about separation of church and state. Right here, we’re out here as a community now, and I’m out here in my official capacity as an elected official.”

We noted that Daniels had posted the comments to her “State Representative Kimberly Daniels” Facebook page.

“That’s fine,” Daniels said. “Right now — go to my Facebook if you would like to see exactly what I believe.”

We asked Daniels why God would want Irma to hit Florida.

Her response: “You pray and ask God that.”

“Put this on note: you do nothing but negative. You’re a very negative reporter, and that’s why I knew that anything you ask has no good meaning or root,” Daniels said.

“Listen, come to church. If you want to ask me questions about God, come to church,” Daniels added.

We asked Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, a man of faith himself, about Daniels’ theory.

“If you’re asking me if I think this was God’s will,” Curry said, “we have freedom of choice. God’s will would be that we always make good choices, and when we deal with a natural disaster we come together as a community and take care of each other.”

Lenny Curry rolls out Irma relief fund

Hurricane Irma left its mark on Jacksonville: massive floods in low-lying areas, wind damage, and other impacts.

And Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry — now fully in what he calls “recovery mode” — seeks to ensure that impacted Northeast Floridians have what they need to defray immediate impacts and recover their lives.

On Wednesday at the Legends Center in Northwest Jacksonville, flanked by politicians and leaders of local non-profits, Curry rolled out the First Coast Relief Fund.

The Jacksonville Jaguars already donated $1,000,000 and 5,000 gameday tickets for Sunday’s home opener to the effort, which is a continuation of the 2016 inception of the fund, launched in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.

That Jaguars commitment is part of a larger nest egg: $2M pledged since Irma exited, including $500,000 from the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund, and another $700,000 from Florida Blue, the United Way and others.

The fund will make grants to nonprofits helping those impacted by the hurricane in Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau, Putnam, and St. Johns counties, filling in the gaps left by governmental programs.

“While we dodged loss of life,” Curry said, “a lot of people are in pain … without power,” and with property damage they may not have budget to remedy.

100 percent of fund proceeds go to “immediate and long-term” needs: housing, food, and supplies.

“A lot of people are in need right now,” Curry said.

After Irma, state politicians descend on Jacksonville

Hurricane Irma’s impact stopped being felt in Jacksonville Monday afternoon, and it was soon thereafter that Gov. Rick Scott was in town.

Scott, who added Duval County to his ask for a major disaster declaration post-Irma on Monday evening, visited a local hurricane shelter with New York Mets’ minor league prospect Tim Tebow, a legend in these parts for his tenure as Florida Gators’ quarterback a decade ago.

Duval will join St. Johns, Flagler, Clay, and Putnam as Counties benefiting from federal help, which includes reimbursement for debris removal and individual assistance for those whose properties were impacted by the storm.

Tuesday saw Scott surveying damage from the sky, with Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry. The two reprised a role last seen in the wake of Hurricane Matthew 11 months prior, with Scott coming to town to assess damage after that storm.

After Gov. Scott’s visit, Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio made trips to the Duval Emergency Operations Center early in the afternoon.

Each arrived separately, and each had their own takes on the storm and the path forward afterward.

Nelson noted that, in addition to the 365 water rescues that were made in Duval County when the storm surge came in, there were 120 rescues in Clay and St. Johns.

Nelson described the hurricane as a “very unusual one, that covered the entire state,” one with “real surprises” for everyone.

Water was the big surprise for Jacksonville, of course, as the storm surge flooded the city for hours on end Monday.

“Water … surprised places like North Florida,” Nelson said.

The storm drew strength from turbocharged waters on each side of the peninsula, of course. Nelson noted that “measurements show that sea level has risen eight inches over the last40 years” off the Miami Beach coast, a rise that was accompanied by the heating of the ocean itself.

“That is expected to increase,” Nelson said.

Miami Beach, said Nelson. has had to spend “tens of millions of dollars on expensive pumps” to deal with a mean high tide — and floods are still part of life down there.

“If that’s happening when there’s not a storm, what happens when there is a storm? We’d better get ready for it, because it’s happening before our very eyes.”

Nelson also addressed post-Andrew building codes, noting that the Florida Legislature passed a law to relax those codes.

He’s not a fan of that move.

“Let’s keep these strong building codes,” Nelson said, noting that there was a vast difference in how new construction and older buildings fared during Irma on Florida’s Southwest coast when he toured it earlier this week.

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Rubio actually agreed with Nelson regarding the building codes.

“People may not like it, but you know when you’re in a house rated post-Andrew, you have a lot more security about what that means for you and your family, and I hope we don’t walk away from that,” Rubio said.

And he had a lot more to say besides.

Regarding the individual assistance authorized by President Donald Trump for individuals impacted by the storm, Rubio noted that time was of the essence regarding disbursement.

“How many people will not be able to go home for a long time … if you lost your home, you can’t go home tonight, we’ve got to get you that money quickly,” Rubio said, noting that local governments — such as Jacksonville, still owed $26M from the federal government for the last storm — are not able to shoulder that burden.

“There are communities waiting three or four years,” Rubio said in reference to Jacksonville’s cash crunch, citing a “backlog” that needs improvement.

“Small businesses” likewise need SBA help.

A “week or two without revenue,” Rubio said, may be the end for them.

Rubio also addressed Nelson’s contention that sea level rise contributed to this storm.

“Irrespective of the broader debate about its causes, you can measure sea level. And when you start to see flooding at high tide at many communities across Florida, when you start to see military installations critical to our economy and our state threatened by it, there are some things you need to do, and some things you can do.”

“There are some things you can do to mitigate,” Rubio said, though he called it a “whole other debate” when this reporter suggested that strategies are elusive to cool the water down that energizes these storms in the first place.

Flooding at high tide, Rubio said, is an “accelerating process.”

We asked Rubio if the Trump Administration was particularly equipped to handle the challenges created by what some call global warming.

“Again, we’re talking about mitigation. And when it comes to mitigation, it’s an infrastructure need,” Rubio said, a “critical” one.

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