DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — It’s not often that a governor gets good news when he arrives in a community the day after a storm hits.
But Rick Scott didn’t find Walton County Commission Chairman Bill Chapman waving an SOS flag when he arrived Tuesday morning at the county’s Emergency Operations Center.
“We fared pretty good,” Chapman told the governor when asked about the damage done by Subtropical Storm Alberto, which struck the Panhandle on Monday. “We didn’t get as much rain as we’d anticipated.”
State Rep. Mel Ponder, R-Destin, was able to offer a similarly good report for his home county of Okaloosa. Panama City resident and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who had accompanied the governor, said Bay County also weathered the storm as well as could be expected.
Alberto made landfall west of Panama City at mid-afternoon and dropped significant rain across Northwest Florida all day and through the night into Tuesday. By daybreak the worst of the storm had moved out of the area and was threatening parts of Alabama and Georgia.
Walton County’s most significant issues arose as a result of downed trees and limbs, spokesman Louis Svehla said.
Approximately 7,000 Gulf Power customers across the region were briefly without electricity, according to the company, including 999 in Okaloosa, 698 in Walton and 74 in Santa Rosa.
Okaloosa County’s Department of Public Safety has scheduled a private briefing this week to discuss the Alberto response, according to county spokesman Christopher Saul.
Walton Sheriff Michael Adkinson said Alberto may have actually proven beneficial in the sense that it gave local officials “the ability to kind of set our emergency management center up and run through our procedures again.”
In response to Commissioner Tony Anderson’s request to “tell the rest of the world we’re open for business,” Scott promised to put Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson to the task, and before the governor left DeFuniak Springs, he had communicated that directive to Lawson by phone.
“The Legislature gave us $76 million again this year, and part of that (Visit Florida) money is to work on when we have something like this, to let people know we’re back open for business,” Scott told reporters after his meeting with county officials.
A Visit Florida spokesman later told the News Service of Florida that Northwest Florida would be highlighted this week across the agency’s social channels.
It appeared from initial reports that the food service industry had suffered greater losses over the rain-soaked Memorial Day weekend than lodging establishments.
While Patronis reported his Panama City restaurant had done about 40 percent of its usual business during the second busiest summer weekend, Walton County’s major bed tax collectors reported being at 90 percent capacity or better on Sunday.
“There were plenty of people out there,” said David Demarest, a spokesman for the Walton County Tourist Development Council. “On Sunday they were still really surprisingly high.”
While the threat of direct storm damage appeared to have ended by the time Scott arrived in DeFuniak Springs Tuesday, local river flooding was still possible from heavy rainfall to the north.
In his parting message to the media, Scott warned local residents to remain diligent.
Alberto arrived as a tropical storm just ahead of the June 1 start of the hurricane season, and the storm should act as a warning that another active storm season could lie ahead, Scott said.
“I think it’s telling us all we’ve got to get ready. They’re predicting a significant hurricane season. I pray that isn’t happening, but all of us need to get ready,” Scott said.