MIDDLEBURG | At least 1,200 Clay County homes sit amid the broad swath cut by record Black Creek flood waters, which inched downward Wednesday as county authorities ended swift water rescue operations by local, state and federal first responders.

 

Both the north and south prongs of Black Creek crested at 28.5 feet Tuesday morning, but not before the flood waters destroyed homes and boat docks, and shattered the lives of countless residents. The previous record of 24.3 feet was set in 1923.

At least 17 homes were destroyed, 47 sustained major damage and 30 suffered minor damage, Chairman Wayne Bolla of the Clay County Commission said of the preliminary damage assessment.

Bolla updated Gov. Rick Scott as he surveyed the ruined homes along the North Prong of Black Creek in Middleburg aboard a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation patrol boat.

The total dollar amount of the damage remains unknown because assessments just started. Teams are fanning out through the county to evaluate and document the damage inflicted by Hurricane Irma, according to Clay County Emergency Management.

Preliminary numbers, however, offer a glimpse of the potential human toll.

At least 300 people and 70 pets marooned by the rising flood waters were rescued within 50 hours after the hurricane hit, Bolla told the governor.


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The county also needs financial help — millions of dollars in Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster money — to recover not just from Irma, but also Hurricane Matthew last year. Local elected officials worry about their communities potentially getting short-changed because FEMA dollars also are needed to help Texas recover from Hurricane Harvey.

“If you could get us some money, it sure would help,” Bolla said when Scott asked how he could help. Clay, like Duval and other Northeast Florida counties, hasn’t been reimbursed by FEMA.

Scott said they are working with FEMA to ensure necessary federal resources are in the state.

“We’re trying to move assets to those most affected as quickly as possible,” said Scott, noting more than 8,000 National Guard troops have been deployed.

But it would helpful, Scott said, if Clay gets the FEMA funding from Hurricane Matthew. He said he will raise the funding issue with FEMA administrator Brock Long, whom he planned to see either later Wednesday or Thursday.

Scottalso said his goal also is to ensure everybody who has been impacted by the hurricanes knows exactly what FEMA offers as far as individual assistance.

“It’s great that we have these programs. Now, we’ve got to make sure people know about the programs so they can rightfully take advantage of them,” Scott said.

Wednesday morning, the murky brown water of the North Prong was dropping but remained swift, carrying away debris, including jagged chunks of demolished docks, pieces of plaster wall board, tufts of insulation, tree limbs and unidentifiable flotsam.

Along with Bolla, Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels and Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun, the adjutant general of the Florida National Guard, joined Scott as he surveyed the damage from an hour-long tour that began and ended at the Main Street boat ramp in Middleburg.

At the sight of one water-logged two-story home, still standing but missing part of its first floor, Scott shook his head. “That was a nice home.”

Residents called out to Scott from top decks of homes-turned-makeshift-islands, or water-logged yards where they picked up debris. From the bow of the boat, Scott asked if they were alright, whether water had gotten into their homes and whether they had electricity.

One man said the creek rushed into his home.

“It is what it is,” he told Scott.

“I wish it hadn’t happened,” Scott said.

Agreeing, the homeowner said,“Hey, it happens but the main thing is everyone got out safe.”

“God answered our prayers,” Scott responded and the man told him, “It can be rebuilt. We’ll survive. We’re Middleburg.” The brief exchange concluded with Scott wishing the man good luck and urging him to be careful.

At the end of the tour, Scott said the disaster’s impact goes beyond a flooded home and lost possessions.

“No one plans for a disaster and if you look at this one, no one can anticipate the water would come up like this. And it came up fast,” Scott said. It’s positive that everyone in Clay County, as far as officials know, was rescued.

“But your heart goes out to them. You know, water came into their house and most people don’t have any extra money for disasters, so it’s going to impact them,” he said. “So, I’m thankful that it looks like we didn’t lose any lives, but now it’s going to be a lot of work to rebuild their lives.

As the recovery process begins in Clay County:

• The Black Creek Bridge on Clay County Road 218 remains closed. County boat ramps are closed until Monday because of debris in the waterways. People who want to volunteer to help can call Clay Safety Net at (904) 644-0311.

• Residents can call (904) 284-7703 or send photos of downed trees blocking roads, or property damage to emergency.management@claycounty.com. Residents who sustained losses in the county can apply for help by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov.

• Disaster Assistance Insurance Helpline: 1 (800) 22-STORM

Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075.