By Dan Moffett
As Hurricane Matthew headed on a collision course with the Florida coast in October, Palm Beach County firefighters vacated the Manalapan station and drove their vehicles to shelter on the mainland.
Now town commissioners are wondering why.
“It seemed to a lot of us sitting up here that that was really inappropriate in the event there was an emergency on our side of the bridge,” Mayor David Cheifetz told county Battalion Fire Chief Doug Clark during the Nov. 15 town meeting.
Commissioner Basil Diamond agreed: “It seems to me like we were being abandoned.”
Clark had a simple answer for the commission. He said there should not have been anybody left in the town to abandon. County emergency managers gave a mandatory evacuation order to Manalapan and neighboring coastal towns, so residents should have departed to find shelter on the mainland, too.
“When the state of emergency was declared and this island was ordered evacuated, our people were evacuated as well,” Clark said. “That’s our policy. I don’t think you want the rescuers needing to be rescued.”
Clark said personnel and equipment for Manalapan were close at hand in Lantana and rode out the storm there. There was a “huge amount of resources” standing ready across the bridge, he said.
No fire-rescue vehicle can operate in winds over 55 miles an hour, according to county policy.
Though Hurricane Matthew veered to the north and didn’t strike the county, emergency managers said they had to guard against the potential danger of a Category 4 storm and had no choice but to order evacuation.
Hundreds of residents in the station’s service district from Manalapan and South Palm Beach ignored the warning and stayed in their homes, however.
Manalapan and South Palm Beach police remained on duty in their towns during the storm, and Cheifetz believes firefighters should maintain some presence on the islands — at least enough to respond to emergency medical calls.
“It seems to me some accommodations can be made without putting people at risk,” the mayor said, and told staff to talk to county officials about changing policy.
In other business:
• Commissioners had hoped to hold a joint public workshop with the Hypoluxo Town Council in January to discuss the prospects for a new contract for water services from Manalapan. But those plans could stall because of the sudden death of longtime Hypoluxo Mayor Ken Schultz in November.
Schultz, 86, also served as Hypoluxo’s town manager and would have been a key negotiator in dealing with Manalapan.
Still, Manalapan Vice Mayor Peter Isaac remains optimistic about renegotiating the agreement after talking with the town’s water consultant.
“It looks like we can put something very, very good in front of Hypoluxo,” Isaac said.
The commission wants to lock in Hypoluxo to a long term-deal that prevents the town from switching to Boynton Beach’s system.
• The newly rebuilt Audubon Causeway bridge is expected to open for two-way traffic some time this month. “We’re in the homestretch now,” Cheifetz said.
One of the last hurdles is a 2 p.m. Dec. 8 workshop meeting during which the Architectural Commission will make the final decisions on landscaping.