Power struggle? Scott, Tallahassee at odds on storm recovery

A large oak tree toppled by Hurricane Hermine crushed a Whataburger restaurant in Tallahassee. (AP photo by Brendan Farrington)
A large oak tree toppled by Hurricane Hermine crushed a Whataburger restaurant in Tallahassee. (AP photo by Brendan Farrington)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The big question in Tallahassee is whether you have power, and whether you think local officials are to blame for the grinding pace of restoring electricity following Hurricane Hermine.

The rising anger played on social media and in the political sphere, with the governor and Tallahassee mayor trading accusations about the slow pace of recovery.

As of Tuesday morning, 16,161 customers in Leon County -- or 11 percent -- were still without power. The only county with a higher percent out of power is Wakulla County, along the Gulf Coast where the hurricane came ashore. 

Multiple state buildings were without power, including the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Children and Families. Workers were told to bring flashlights to retrieve laptops and other essential items.

Families concerned about whether their child support funds would be affected by the outage called News4Jax on Tuesday. Gov. Rick Scott said the state has a contingency plan for when a building is unusable, so funds should still be available.

Scott, a Republican, has openly questioned if city and county officials are doing enough, putting out a news release Sunday that said the city had rejected debris removal assistance. The city's mayor, Andrew Gillum, a Democrat and rising star who appeared at the national convention, reacted quickly and said the governor's comments weren't true.

Scott's office later said there had been a "misunderstanding."

Standing near a line of trucks in Tallahassee, Scott defended his approach on Monday, saying that "most people would say I'm rather aggressive in trying to solve problems" and that he would continue to pressure city officials until all the power was restored.

"I'm responsible for all 20.6 million people in the state and it's real important to me people get back to school and get back to work," Scott said.

The mayor took to social media to fire back at critics.

"It appears that the heat has driven some to speculate wildly about what help I have accepted or rejected on behalf of the city in our effort to recuperate from this storm. ... Let me be clear. We are happy to accept any help from any person or organization that is going to accelerate the speed at which we can safely restore power to our residents."

Gillum and Scott then had a tense exchange Monday afternoon at a meeting called by the governor to discuss recovery efforts. The mayor told Scott point blank that putting out press releases and making statements on Twitter would "undermine our cooperative process." He also said that Tallahassee took a near direct hit from Hermine, causing extensive damage. Scott retorted that it may bother some people but that he wasn't going to stop pushing for more to be done.

Compounding the problems with restoring power has been debris removal. The city and the Department of Transportation are now working more closely to identify areas where trees need to be cut before crews can tend to power lines. Prior to Sunday, the city was going through the county to ask the state for assistance.

City officials were hopeful that 90 percent of power could be restored by Monday evening but it didn't appear they would reach that goal. To help get to that, Scott has hired private additional crews, which will be paid for by state funds, to aid in the effort.

Florida's first hurricane in 11 years also brought to the forefront the problems that can often exist between investor-owned utilities and those owned by municipalities. Scott said one thing he wants after the storm is finding a way where everyone works better together.

He said the investor-owned utilities work well with themselves, but all of the utilities need to work well together.

"What if we have a Category 2 or 3 hit? Everyone deserves to have their power back quickly," he said.

Rob Gould, a spokesman for Florida Power & Light, the third largest utility in the U.S., said the company offered to send 575 restoration personnel from their service center, but Tallahassee's utilities director said the city could not accept the help at the time. Gould said the offer still stands. During the meeting between Scott and Gillum, Duke Energy also offered additional crews.

With power and debris still a problem, Leon County schools were canceled until Wednesday, as is Florida State University, Florida A&M University and Tallahassee Community College.