SEBRING — Hurricane Irma, indirectly, nearly cost Spring Lake funds for the wastewater treatment plant, but didn’t cause too many other problems, according to Joe DeCerbo, manager for the improvement district.
Members of the Board of Supervisors reported they still have street lamps flickering, not lighting or staying on constantly, but the water, sewer, drainage and road systems stayed intact, DeCerbo said. The only downside is that the District may have to wait years before it gets reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on disaster recovery costs.
On a good note, when it seemed like the District would miss out on a 30-year, no-interest loan from the State Revolving Fund, DeCerbo said a local newspaper employee provided the district with proof of publication for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s permitting division, which kept the item on the funding agenda for the coming year.
“I had sent them a copy of the legal notice that was in the (Highlands) News-Sun,” DeCerbo said, but FDEP said that wasn’t good enough.
Normally, DeCerbo said, the newspaper sends a special verification form — an affidavit, of sorts — that verifies that the legal notice ran within the prescribed time period. Unfortunately, during that time, the Highlands News-Sun had been washed out of its office by a leaky roof, and the newspaper employee who provides the notice was working, “out of her car,” more or less.
“He would not give up. The last email was ‘if I don’t have it by Thursday, we’re not going to allow it on the agenda,’” DeCerbo said.
The female employee from the Highlands News-Sun drove all the way out to Spring Lake to deliver a copy of the notice on Tuesday. Spring Lake staff sent it to FDEP immediately, and the state agency said, “Thank you very much,” DeCerbo said.
“We literally would have been off the agenda to get the loan because we couldn’t get this little affidavit,” DeCerbo said.
Now that’s going through, along with construction plans for the $2.58-million plant on a 7.5-acre wooded site at the east end of the district between Duane Palmer Boulevard and U.S. 98.
Supervisor Brian Acker commended the hard work by district employees who came out after Irma to start the recovery work, on their own volition. He also praised utility workers, too.
“I was here for (Hurricanes) Charley, Jeanne and Frances, and I was surprised at how quickly they got the power back here,” Acker said, noting that it returned in five days when, after Charley, it took almost eight days.
Board Chair Bill Lawens said his wife was evacuating northward on Sept. 5, well before the storm hit, and saw “floods of utility trucks heading south.”
Clay Shrum, assistant district manager, said Spring Lake staff coordinated every day with Duke Energy, and still is coordinating, trying to get light poles fixed.
DeCerbo told supervisors that debris removal is moving ahead — the county is paying for that. However, debris crews will not pick up anything that measures more than 15 feet long. The District just learned about that requirement on Wednesday, DeCerbo said.
“So our guys are out there now, in front of these trucks, cutting (limbs) up so they’re no more than 15 feet so they can pick them up,” DeCerbo said.
“I’d like to apologize for the palm tree that’s in my right-of-way, because it’s longer than 15 feet, and I had no idea,” Acker said.
“We had no idea until about 8:15 this morning,” DeCerbo said.
On a good news point, DeCerbo said, the District was able to get help obtaining a generator for the water plant, thanks to connections through the South Florida Water Management District and with Rep. Cary Pigman (R-Avon Park). DeCerbo credits that and good maintenance of the existing generator with helping the district keep up water pressure — and avoiding any “boil water” notices — as well as keeping stormwater and wastewater systems moving and not backing up in people’s yards or homes.
The initial request for a generator from SFWMD was an 800-number to call at the state level, DeCerbo said. So Spring Lake staff contacted someone close to Pigman, who called him.
“(It) wasn’t 14 hours later, we got a call it was on its way: A generator, staff to hook it up, and diesel fuel,” DeCerbo said. Supervisor Gary Behrendt tallied 1.4 billion gallons of water pumped in September, and DeCerbo said that was more than the entire last fiscal year.
Lawens suggested now would be the time to pursue a permanent generator, for any emergency. DeCerbo said the District went after a pre-mitigation grant from FEMA prior to this, but didn’t have enough points to compete for the money. After Irma, and the data gathered since then, DeCerbo said, they may have enough points to get it, especially with more funding now available.
“We are definitely a different Spring Lake than we were,” DeCerbo said.