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In DeSantis Talks of Damage to Flagler’s Shore During Visit, 2 Words Spell Relief: Paul Renner

Flagler County Engineer Faith al-Khatib this morning explained to Gov. DeSantis the loss of yet another 160 feet of the Flagler Beach pier, after a similar loss during Hurricane Matthew. To the governor’s right were Flagler Beach Mayor Suzie Johnston and City Manager William Whitson.

Posted on October 17, 2022

As Gov. Ron DeSantis stopped for just under an hour in Flagler Beach this morning to see the damage to dunes and the pier, the two words that recurred most often by way of relief ahead, even from DeSantis’s lips, were a name: Rep. Paul Renner, the incoming Speaker of the house. Renner represents Flagler County.

It was as if the governor was openly signaling to county officials to seize a unique opportunity.

“You’ve got the next Speaker of the House,” DeSantis told a group of local officials around a table at Flagler Beach City Hall, Renner among them, when the county engineer spoke of needing help from the state. Renner and the Legislature, the governor said, would have “more say than even I do because they’re the ones in charge of appropriating money.”

Local officials are hoping the rare confluence of state leadership with direct ties to Flagler will translate into quicker and more substantial aid: DeSantis previously represented the county in Congress, Renner will be the second-most powerful elected official in the state for the next two years, and Kevin Guthrie, who was Flagler County’s emergency management director, is now the state director. Guthrie was at the table this morning, too, and stayed behind for a lengthy debriefing with local officials, pledging focused attention to local needs.

The need is dire to repair an estimated loss of another half-million cubic yards of dune sand to Hurricane Ian, erasing the county’s dune-rebuilding since Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and carving out up to 30 more feet in width in places, from what remained of the dune structure, County Engineer Faith al-Khatib said. The county is not only looking for money, but also looking to reduce or eliminate requirements that any state grant be matched locally by up to 50 percent: the county simply could not afford it, al-Khatib said. The matching requirements for federal dollars are smaller.

Gov. Ron DeSantis in Flagler Beach today, with, to the right, Rep. Tom Leek, who represents Volusia County, and Rep. paull Renner, who represents Flagler and is the incoming Speaker of the House.

Flagler County Emergency Management Director Jonathan Lord gave the governor a brief overview of the damage, describing Ian’s effects more as a rain and wind storm, depending on the area. Al-Khatib outlined the more serious, compounding damage to the dune structure, now reduced to nothing or next-to-nothing, leaving the shore extremely vulnerable to the next storm. Flagler Beach City Manager William Whitson summarized the tourist draw of the pier and Flagler Beach’s shore. He also mentioned numbers he’d not mentioned before: rebuilding the Flagler Beach pier as a concrete pier will not cost $10 million, as estimated in 2018. “We think it’s going to be more of the order of $15 to $18 million,” Whitson said.

The governor was then taken the short distance to the pier.

“It was a very impactful meeting. Short, but we were able to discuss the economic impact, the residential impact and the business impact of the storm here,” Flagler Beach Mayor Suzie Johnston, who represented te city at the table with the governor, said. “Being able to have a very strong relationship with Renner, and DeSantis really putting a lot of those decision-makings on to Renner is very beneficial to Flagler County because we have a wonderful relationship with them and also for Flagler Beach. We have a personal relationship with him as well. But the biggest thing was touching in on the pier and how it really affects tourism. For our city and then also our county having over 800,000 visitors annually to Flagler Beach. So hopefully we’ll be able to receive the funding for all of the projects that we have to really make our city more resilient.”

County Commissioner Andy Dance “absolutely” has high hopes from today’s visit, he said. “We don’t get the governor here, it’s unfortunate circumstances that bring him here,” Dance said, “but I think the cooperation among government entities, especially with having representative Renner here and everybody getting together at the same table is very powerful.”

“It’s unfortunate that a lot of our needs are now centered around an emergency recovery,” Dance said. The county had hopes to put Renner’s tenure to other priorities, but the emergency is “all consuming right now, taking all of the oxygen out of the air.”

No specific dollar figures were discussed today, particularly since local governments and the state will be looking at federal reimbursements through the federal Emergency Management Administration for large portions of the losses. The pier is among those. Rather, the governor’s stop was intended to provide him with an overview, and for local officials to impress on him the urgency of Flagler’s needs even as he has been touring Southwest Florida, where the devastation makes Flagler’s damage look negligible in comparison.

You couldn’t blame DeSantis for being somewhat less than shocked at what he saw, and very likely far less shocked than what he’d seen when he visited as a congressman in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Back then, he stood at one point in the literal wreckage of State Road A1A at the south end of Flagler Beach, where the late Larry newsom, the city manager at the time, had taken him.

Then-U.S. Rep. DeSantis with Larry newsom, in 2016, surveying Hurricane Matthew damage to State Road A1A in Flagler Beach.

Today, City Manager William Whitson and others walked him to the edge of the boardwalk at State Road A1A and State Road 100, adjacent to the Funky pelican, where the ocean has carved out the sand all the way to the parking area. Of course the governor has been seeing far worse elsewhere: everything he saw here was still standing, including the restaurant, whose brisk business was the source of a half dozen shout-outs to the governor.

Around the table at City Hall DeSantis was focused and almost grim-faced as he heard the litany of local needs and damages. But as he walked onto the pier, most of which is still standing, he was all smiles, responding to the shout-outs and speaking with some of his supporters who’d gathered there, before turning again to cameras.

He only walked a few steps onto the part of the pier that still sits on land. That part of the visit over, he was quickly driven to a home in Beverly beach whose foundations have all but given way, as the ocean there carved out the entire dune structure. The scene is similar to that affecting more than a dozen home further south on A1A in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, which you can see in this FlaglerLive video. The county and homeowners agreed building a seawall there, paid for by property owners.

County Commissioner Greg Hansen and Al-Khatib took the governor to one of the more recently damaged structures on A1A. Hansen said afterward that the sea wall further south will be the model for extending it north, since it did the job. “So we’ll have to do the same thing here. And we’re already marching down that road to get to meet with all these people,” Hansen said right after the visit. “This will be funded by the people that live here.”

The property just south of Varn Park that DeSantis saw today.

But what Hansen described as “the hardest thing we need to do” is the dune-rebuilding, especially at the north end of the county. “It’s going ton be tough, tough, but we’ll get it done,” he said.

Beyond pointing to Renner, DeSantis referred to existing state dollars Flagler could tap into. “We created a Resilient Florida program a couple of years ago so basically local governments can apply for grants,” he said. “You have critical infrastructure, you can make more resistant to extreme weather events. And so I know we’ve put out a lot of grants on that already. There’ll be more and I imagine that’ll be something we continue to be funding.”

Last February, the governor announced just over $400 million in awards to 113 communities. Projects included the building or replacement of sea walls, numerous flooding mitigation programs, stormwater improvements and the like, through grants ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars to over $20 million. Not a single local government in Flagler County was on the list.

Kevin Guthrie, second from left, the state director of emergency management, was back among familiar faces, with City Manager William Whitson, County Administrator Heidi Petito and Flagler Emergency Manager Jonathan Lord in a debriefing after the governor left.

Regardless of who was speaking–DeSantis, Renner, Guthrie–there was no mention of retreat from the shore, or not building back. Only building back higher and stronger. “Forget what government may do, but the market itself is going to demand that homes become more and more resilient in order to get insurance or to get insurance at an affordable price,” Renner said. “So the market will send the signal also. But we’re also going to help people. We have on the ballot this year, for example, an ad valorem measure that would give an exemption to people that take mitigation efforts to avoid flooding. And this would be a great example of that. And so if you raise the level of your home and do other things that go towards flooding, you’re going to get a tax benefit on your real estate tax bill.” That measure is on the ballot this year.”

Renner was referring to Amendment 1, on the Nov. 8 ballot, which is not so much an additional exemption in the traditional sense as exempting any flood-mitigation improvements made from being calculated in tax assessments. For example, if a home value were to improve by $50,000 because its owner built significant flood-protection improvements, that additional $50,000 will not be part of the assessed value on which the property tax is calculated.

“What we need to keep focused on is, Florida’s building code is the strongest building code in the country, if not the world,” Guthrie said. “So that’s the first thing to take away. So when you go to situations like in Fort Myers Beach, the houses that were built after 2004, and after the building codes went into effect, those houses are still standing there, and that’s what we want. So to the point of–do we need to make sure that buildings that have more than 50 percent damage are built back to the new code? Absolutely. We know that resiliency works. We know that mitigation works. We know that the new codes work, so we need to continue on down that path. If the speaker, the governor, and the president of the Senate want to look at our building codes, obviously anytime after a hurricane, there’s a good time to do that. But those their decisions, not necessarily mine.”

Gov. DeSantis with, left, Flagler Emergency management Director Jonathan Lord during today’s briefing at Flagler Beach City Hall.



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