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Decimated by Hurricane Michael, Florida firehouse says funding a life or death issue

NBC News logo NBC News 8/23/2019 Phil McCausland
a little girl standing in front of a truck: Volunteer firefighter Alicia Rhodes with one of her three children, Alina, in front of her home covered with blue tarps, with a firetruck in the front yard, in Mossy Pond, Florida. © Nicole Craine Volunteer firefighter Alicia Rhodes with one of her three children, Alina, in front of her home covered with blue tarps, with a firetruck in the front yard, in Mossy Pond, Florida.

Dominick and Alicia Rhodes have had blue tarps covering the roof of their Florida home and a firetruck in their front yard since Hurricane Michael devastated their rural inland county 10 months ago.

The couple — who have three kids, maintain two full-time jobs and work as volunteer firefighters in their spare time — are now caretakers of one of the Mossy Pond Volunteer Fire Department fire engines because the firehouse where they once stored their trucks and equipment was obliterated by the storm.

The three other fire engines and two brush trucks that service this part of the county, a rural area of about 14,500 people a little more than 40 miles inland from Panama City, Florida, rest in other volunteers' yards.

Most of the eight members of the all-volunteer fire department balance full-time jobs and families. The lack of a firehouse complicates how they coordinate responding to medical calls, car accidents and wildfires in a part of Calhoun County where the closest ambulance and hospital is a 25-minutes away.

a man standing in front of a building: Image: Tony Mazzarese © Nicole Craine Image: Tony Mazzarese

The need for the fire department's services is clear. Between January and July, the Mossy Pond Fire Department responded to 128 calls. At least 80 percent are medical in nature for the elderly population that lives in the region, Volunteer Fire Chief Tony Mazzarese said.

The frustration is that the extra coordination needed to accommodate the loss of a firehouse, the lack of resources and the loss of gear only threaten the people they aim to serve, and that could result in someone getting seriously hurt — or worse.

“Almost everyone on the department is still trying to recover personally, but there’s not time,” Alicia Rhodes said. “We spend a lot of our time answering calls and trying to raise funds for the department.”

In good years, the fire department operates on an annual budget of $10,000, and sometimes that gets stretched an additional $2,000 through local fundraisers. But that won’t be nearly enough to cover a new firehouse, repairs to damaged equipment and replacements for the numerous items stolen in the aftermath of the storm that hit the Florida Panhandle in October, causing billions of dollars in damage and ostensibly wiping away entire towns.

A set of halogen lights that they used to light up car crashes was recently stolen, as was the firehouse’s lone window air conditioner unit. The lights alone cost $1,500, a massive hit to their tiny annual budget.

"It's just adding insult to injury," Mazzarese said. So much so that one of the volunteers scrawled on one of the remaining firehouse doors, “Dear Thief, stealing from us could cost you your life!”

The county’s insurance company called the damages to the firehouse a complete loss and paid out the full $103,000 policy — but a new firehouse would cost between $250,000 and $400,000. An estimate for a blueprint by a local architecture firm alone was quoted at $42,000.

Those are all astronomical figures for a fire department supported by a volunteers on an entirely shoestring budget.

a sign on the side of a wooden door: Image: © Nicole Craine Image:

“We have to cut costs everywhere to try and make it work. We do fundraisers whenever we can,” Mazzarese said. “Being very careful, I’ve been able to operate the department on $12,000 a year, which is insane to think about.”

But times are incredibly tough now in ways that aren’t just financial.

Mazzarese said morale in the firehouse has plummeted and as many as a half-dozen volunteers have walked away from the fire station out of frustration, leaving them with eight stalwarts. Many want to know what the county and the department have planned, questions that persistently go unanswered because local leaders are waiting for answers from federal and state officials.

“’What’s the next step? What do we have to do?’” he said. “We go to the meetings, everything they ask us to do we try to do in a timely fashion, but it is a process. It takes a lot of time. Unfortunately, in this service, time is not something we have a lot of.”

While the county has turned in an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursement to rebuild the firehouse, the status of that application is murky.

FEMA told NBC News that it had received an application only after initially saying it could not locate one related to the Mossy Pond Volunteer Fire Department. Then it said the fire department did not provide the necessary documentation to fulfill its application for federal funding to rebuild its firehouse.

The issue is that the fire department, the county, the state and FEMA all don’t seem to know exactly where Calhoun County and the fire department’s application stands.

“Our thing is that we have to make sure the law is upheld,” Jim Homstad, a FEMA spokesperson, said. “That’s our role. The role of the applicant is to make sure they submit the required documents. The faster they do that accurately, the faster you can approve the process.”

After NBC News asked FEMA to specify what documents the county and fire department lacked, Holmstad said he and his agency did not know and directed further questions to the county.

The county said they were unaware that they owed additional documents and added that they had not been notified that their application was considered incomplete.

a man sitting in front of a truck: Image: Calhoun County Commissioner Gene Bailey © Nicole Craine Image: Calhoun County Commissioner Gene Bailey

“It’s very frustrating, and the rules seem to keep changing,” Calhoun County Commissioner Gene Bailey said. “They’re supposed to be simplified and they’re not what they used to be, but they aren’t easy for us. We are very appreciative of anything we get.”

The Florida Division of Emergency Management did not respond to a request for comment about the status of Calhoun County and the Mossy Pond Volunteer Fire Department's applications for relief.

But the county still faces many challenges.

They were only able to reopen the schools last week. The area hospital faced severe damage and may need to be replaced. Some of the prisoners from the county prison are housed at neighboring prisons because their detention center also remains mangled by the high winds of Hurricane Michael.

Most every house and building in Calhoun County was affected by the storm, Bailey said, but because it's a rural county, it just doesn't receive the same kind of attention.

"A five hour period changed the lives of people here in this county," he said. "No one in this county had ever experienced something like that. The damage is massive and we may not recover for another five to 10 years."

At the end of the day, however, the volunteers in Mossy Pond are doing what they can to get by, including turning to a number of different charities and agencies for help. But they worry it might not be enough.

“We’re getting better at this, but our fear is that it’s going to cause someone to die,” Alicia Rhodes said. “That’s our number one concern is that we’re not going to get there in time.”

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