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Tallahassee officials say they did not “reject” offers of help with power restoration; they just didn’t say “yes”

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In their clearest explanation yet, Tallahassee city officials said Tuesday they did not “reject” offers of help from outside utilities in the wake of Hurricane Hermine, but rather just didn’t say “yes” to everyone right away.

That was because too many workers, rather than being a boon, would have presented a coordination and safety nightmare, officials suggested.

The Tallahassee City Commission held a special meeting to “discuss the impacts of Hurricane Hermine and the (electricity) restoration progress.”

One of the lessons to come out of that meeting was the need to avoid a communications failure like the one over the last few days, where residents complained of conflicting information about how and when their juice would return.

The city and its critics, including Gov. Rick Scott, have been locked in a round robin of recriminations over its response to the storm, particularly in restoring power to homes and businesses.

In Leon County, 14,000-16,000 homes were still without power as of Tuesday morning, according to the state’s Emergency Operations Center.

But, as City Manager Rick Fernandez told commissioners, 90 percent of city utility customers are back online four days after the storm, compared with only 65 percent restored in four days after Hurricane Kate in 1985.

With thousands still without electricity, “let’s go get them power,” City Commissioner Scott Maddox said, “and let other people snipe.”

“We have hit our targets every day,” utilities chief Rob McGarrah said. “In fact, we’re a little ahead of where we thought we might be.”

McGarrah also addressed complaints that he and other administrators were rebuffing assistance from other utility companies, including investor-owned utilities.

Workers from Gulf Power have joined the effort, with others from Jacksonville Electric Authority expected today. But offers from Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light went unanswered.

“As we move into the next stage of the work, we’re actually moving into the most dangerous time,” McGarrah said. “It would have been very easy for us just to turn the power off to the whole system and bring in a couple of thousand people in from other utilities.

“While our focus is to get the customers back up, our No. 1 job is to do it without anyone getting hurt,” McGarrah added. “…When I bring mutual aid crews in, I’ve got to have my people with them, to help do that coordination and (give) a situational awareness to where everybody else is working.

“…If crew A doesn’t know where crew B is, and we energize a line, somebody’s going to get hurt,” he said. “It’s about what we can manage…everybody I know in our business does it that way.

“We’ve reached a saturation point of how many we can manage safely,” McGarrah told commissioners, suggesting that the saturation threshold is low.

But he added, “We’re all following a fairly standard process in our business,” before breaking down in tears about workers who were “busting their tails” around the clock.

Still, it took till four days after the storm for that explanation to see daylight. When Mayor Andrew Gillum was asked after the meeting whether the city lost control of their own narrative, he said there wasn’t time to take rein of it.

“Not many folks in the city were focused as much on the narrative,” he said. “I think they’re hard-working career professionals who understood that their job was to get our city back up and running, to focus on getting the utility back…They weren’t intentionally attempting to mislead or not inform; it was that they were barreled in on the job they had to do.”

But Gillum contributed to the confusion by denying on social media that he had refused offers of help, then saying he couldn’t accept or reject help under the city charter because operational decisions are left to the city manager.

Gillum also was asked why he didn’t say anything when investor-owned Florida Power & Light’s Eric Silagy offered the city help at the governor’s Friday night’s briefing.

“There were a number of private-sector and public-sector utilities around the table; what was happening in that meeting, to my understanding, was for everyone to come together and list what their assets were,” Gillum said. “What could be offered? What could be taken? What were our needs? Then get together and figure out who was going to do what.

“And our professionals said, ‘should we need them, we’ll bring them in,’ ” he added.

After the meeting, Fernandez told reporters there was “a lot of flow” after the storm between the city and those offering help.

“We accepted those offers we could accept…we didn’t reject anything,” he said. “We engaged those who could do work efficiently and safely. And there are still a lot of offers on the table. The answer is, ‘thank you very much, we’ll note it down,’ and as we need them we call on them.

“I think the message has been consistent,” Fernandez added. “But we’ll reassess and address all of those (communication) issues.”

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Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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