St. Petersburg’s Parks & Recreation Department’s scope of responsibilities extends far beyond the city’s greenspaces and recreation centers before, during and after a natural disaster.
The department is a vital cog in St. Petersburg’s Hurricane Ian cleanup efforts, explained Mike Jefferis, Leisure services administrator, and it is currently overseeing an extensive debris removal process. After ensuring safe passage for first responders and that parks are safe from half-fallen trees, Jefferis and his team – along with support from the city’s sanitation and stormwater departments – have now turned their attention to clearing city streets and residences.
Jefferis, director of parks and recreation, said that once an outside contractor is in place for that work, his department will return its focus to removing debris from greenspaces and typical functions.
“We do much more than the fun stuff,” said Jefferis. “It’s actually one of the reasons why Mayor (Ken) Welch really doesn’t like the name of our department. We are the lead agency when it comes to debris management.”
The city built leisure services its own emergency operations subcenter (EOSC), which Jefferis explained serves as its base of operations during disasters. While he slept at the city’s EOC, several staff members spent their nights at the department’s sub-center, so they could hit the ground running as soon as it was safe.
Jefferis formed 12 preposition teams in preparation for Hurricane Ian and strategically placed them at every fire station and hospital. Once a storm passes, their first task is to clear the roads leading to and from those critical facilities.
“So those first responders can get in, do their assessment and start doing some of their medical rescues,” he added.
While it depends on the storm, Jefferis typically places another 30 people at the leisure services headquarters to clear essential corridors. While he said “it doesn’t look pretty,” his employees use front-end loaders and various heavy equipment to unblock roads.
After that initial push, the department works closely with Duke Energy to remove trees and branches from public rights-of-ways. Duke embeds a team with the city employees to ensure powerlines are de-energized and safe.
In phase two, explained Jefferis, the parks department attends the city’s green spaces. The goal, he said, is to safeguard residents from half-fallen trees that could result in serious injuries.
“Because we know they might be messy, but we know people want to get back into the parks,” said Jefferis.
City administrators then collectively decide whether to activate the emergency debris contractor according to the size and scope of the cleanup process. Jefferis noted that his department handled that in-house with previous storms, but the President and FEMA director made municipal responses to Hurricane Ian 100% reimbursable.
As such, city leaders have activated its contractor and debris monitor, which collects data throughout the process and reports it to FEMA. Meanwhile – after his team worked “around the clock” completing the first two phases over the weekend – Jefferis said boots were on the ground Monday and Tuesday to map out the city and create a plan of attack.
He added that crews began rolling through neighborhoods using speed loaders and crane trucks to collect residential debris set alongside city roads Wednesday morning.
“We’re seeing that the south of the city got hit the hardest as far as debris goes,” said Jefferis. “I haven’t hauled a ton yet at this point; I will start to get measurements very, very soon.
“I know that we’re not anywhere near what we had with Irma.”
FEMA gave municipalities a 30-day deadline for full reimbursement, relayed Jefferis. He said the clock is ticking on the process, and city employees “are highly motivated” to return St. Petersburg to its pre-storm condition as quickly as possible.
Jefferis also expressed his hope that residents remain patient. While the vast majority appreciate the long days and hard work – some even bring snacks and water, he added – there are still people that complain about the length of the process.
“That’s demotivating, and quite honestly, it kind of breaks my heart,” said Jefferis. “We have a 60-square-mile city, and it takes time to get everything done. We’re not sitting back waiting for the work to come to us. We’re full throttle.”
While he noted that the city’s police, fire, public works and codes departments are also “up to their eyeballs” in post-hurricane duties, Jefferis called his and his team’s efforts a point of pride.
Storms are emotional events, he said, and witnessing destruction and debris through the city can be debilitating. As someone born and raised in St. Petersburg, Jefferis relishes playing a crucial part in its cleanup and restoration.
Despite staff working before, during and immediately following the storm, he recently asked if employees would volunteer to work throughout the coming weekend. While the city pays them for their efforts, Jefferis said he did not have the heart to assign anyone because many still had issues to address around their own homes.
“I had 60 park staff sign up voluntarily to work this weekend to help clean the city,” said Jefferis. “So, I think that we are very proud of the work we do, and we know that we are a huge part of the restoration, and we get life back to normal as quickly as we can.”