As hurricane season approaches, the Wellington Village Council began the process this week of setting up an efficient post-disaster debris recovery system.
At the Tuesday, May 22 meeting, council members reflected on the lessons learned from Hurricane Irma last year.
“This is something we put together when we realized that we could do it well in advance in studying the way we went through the storm last year,” Councilman John McGovern said. “That’s what brought this forward at this point in time — the week before we start hurricane season.”
Having learned vital lessons from Hurricane Irma — which created a deluge of vegetative waste that took months to collect and dispose of — the council was on board with the idea of amending the village’s code of ordinances by creating an entirely new article that, through requiring right-of-access agreements from all community homeowners’ associations, will allow the village to more efficiently clean up disaster-caused debris.
Much of the new ordinance is to bring the village in line with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requirements.
“As you know, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, in order for the village to pick up debris in private communities, FEMA required that we get right-of-entry agreements signed by the HOAs in order for us to be eligible for FEMA reimbursement,” Purchasing Director Ed De La Vega explained. “In addition, FEMA required that the village pass this ordinance for post-disaster debris recovery, as part of the village’s disaster debris management plan.”
The new sections of the code will include the village’s ability to enter and remove debris from private roadways and bodies of water in gated and non-gated residential communities.
In order to avoid a situation like the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, in which the village could not send crews to clean up debris without the consent of HOAs, the village hopes to get ahead and have the consent in place before a disaster occurs.
“The ordinance gives us the responsibility to do [the cleanup of debris], and the right of access agreement gives us the right to enter a community,” Village Attorney Laurie Cohen explained.
FEMA, according to De La Vega, is in agreement with the efforts of the village to get the Wellington community back to normal as quickly as possible after a disaster occurs, and the agency will reimburse the village for the cleanup work.
“It’s a proactive approach, as opposed to waiting for a storm to hit and then chase down these agreements,” he said. “The proactive approach is to get as many of these signed before a storm hits. FEMA has allowed us to do this once a year, which would cover any event during the course of that year.”
The village is joining forces with a majority of the HOAs to facilitate the debris cleanup necessary after a storm in order to make the post-disaster process more efficient for residents. All HOAs were sent agreements.
“We have sent out the right-of-entry agreements to the HOAs, and to date, we have received about 30, so we are well on our way,” De La Vega said.
Vice Mayor Michael Drahos expressed concern over some residential communities’ HOAs declining to sign right-of-entry agreements and not accepting future aid from the village in the regard to disaster debris.
“I want their residents to be aware of the fact that their HOA board has decided not to sign this agreement, which means we will not be sending folks in there to pick up after storms,” Drahos said.
The ordinance is not strictly for the occurrence of a hurricane, but for any emergency situation that would require debris removal. The village hopes to respond to these emergency situations in a quicker manner, without having to worry about getting permission from all HOAs in order to assist residents.
“I think last time we did a great job in trying to help out, and this is just getting it out in front and having it in place so that we aren’t chasing it down at the last minute,” Mayor Anne Gerwig said. “I know we were in a jam last time, on time, so that was a lesson learned.”
In other business, State Rep. Matt Willhite (D-District 86) updated the council Tuesday regarding different safety matters as part of his legislative session wrap-up.
“We went into session this year thinking we would talk a lot about hurricanes, nursing homes and things of that matter — hopefully working out some hardening and offering some generators,” he recalled. “We started going through that topic, and the session went on until about Feb. 14, when everything really changed.”
Willhite explained that the deadly school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland has largely dictated the political conversation and focus ever since.
“A lot of things really turned our attention to the school shooting, and I don’t say it’s a good thing that it happened, but it’s a good thing, if it was going to happen, that it happened while we were in session,” Willhite said. “We had the opportunity to start talking about it and debating to have some real conversation in the State of Florida to put some things toward working on our school safety.”
Willhite explained that, in efforts to improve school safety, $400 million of the state budget went toward the school safety act, with $6.1 million going to Palm Beach County.
In Palm Beach County, Willhite said, the money is being put forth to hire extra school police officers and the overall hardening of public schools. He explained his concern over the economic reality of hiring so many new officers, as funding is available this year but is not guaranteed for next year.
“We have an obligation to protect our children when they go to school each and every day,” Willhite said.
Along with the large focus on school safety, Willhite updated the council on his effort toward preserving the environment, providing proper mental health care for first responders and controlling the ongoing opioid epidemic by implementing legislation that limits opioid prescriptions to a maximum of seven days.