Panama City Civic Center Won’t Get Replacement Funding, FEMA Votes

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PANAMA CITY — Nearly four years after Hurricane Michael destroyed the beloved Marina Civic Center, Panama City officials learned Tuesday night that the city had lost its arbitration battle with FEMA to replace the dilapidated center.

In a 2-1 decision by a panel of FEMA judges, they determined that the city did not meet the “50% rule” in which the cost of the improvement or repair exceeds 50% of the market value of the structure, therefore the center is not eligible for replacement with FEMA funding.

City officials first filed their appeal in July last year after being denied and sought arbitration in January this year after FEMA failed to respond within 200 days.

City Manager Mark McQueen held a press conference Wednesday afternoon to discuss the results and what it means for Panama’s road to restoration, stressing how disappointing the decision is for the community.

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“This is disheartening news because clearly Panama City is struggling to get back on its feet,” McQueen said. “This is another setback for the community, but we have the resolve to continue rebuilding the arts in Panama City and replacing the civic center.”

With the 50% rule, McQueen said the city had to prove that Hurricane Michael caused more than $2 million in damage, with the focus on the damaged HVAC system.

“The cost to replace the HVAC system was $3.7 million…it would certainly be necessary to prove the city met its 50% obligation if we can get FEMA to recognize the HVAC system that it needs to be replaced. “McQueen said. “This will take us over the 50% threshold and therefore we would be eligible for a full Civic Center replacement.”

City officials said their argument is to prove that wind-driven rain and salt water came in and ruined the system.

McQueen said they brought in experts to test the system to confirm it had been destroyed.

Jim Keeney of NOVA Engineering and Environmental explains how his company will simulate a category five hurricane Thursday at the Marina Civic Center in Panama City.  The test was authorized by the city to aid them in their appeal to FEMA for more federal funds to repair or replace the center which was severely damaged during Hurricane Michael.  The large fan, called Wolf, produced large amounts of water and wind in the simulation.

On June 10 of last year, NOVA Engineering and Environmental conducted a test to simulate the effects of Hurricane Michael on the center. McQueen said the results proved “beyond a doubt” that all electrical components in HVAC systems were saturated by wind-driven rain.

“We also had engineers who weren’t just there to watch this experiment that proved saturation had taken place…we had our CPMY engineering companies, we had Mott MacDonald, we had services engineering system, we had our building code people,” McQueen said. “We even had the office of (Congressman Neal Dunn) witness this alongside, for the very first time, a FEMA individual who laid down fingerprints throughout the Civic Center property. “

McQueen pointed out that FEMA officials did not enter the damaged facility until two years after Michael’s shot. During their testing of the equipment, it was reported to not work and started smoking.

City officials presented multiple reports and expert testimony at a hearing on April 19-20 that showed the HVAC system had been destroyed by Michael.

FEMA officials disagreed with their reports, although a FEMA field inspector agreed with the findings.

“FEMA’s argument was that even if the HVAC system had gotten wet, we could have just wiped it down…obviously, we didn’t think that would be the case,” McQueen said. “Two of the three judges on the arbitration panel agreed with FEMA’s argument and said the city had failed to prove that Hurricane Michael caused damage to the HVAC system that would otherwise require the replacement of the HVAC system. entire building and therefore ruled against the city.”

The Panama City Marina Civic Center pictured Thursday, July 8, 2021.

A judge agreed with the findings, saying in his report that the arbitration record shows that “the effects of wind-driven rain and salt water from Hurricane Michael caused damage to the HVAC system and that there was no other cause for this damage”.

As for what’s next, McQueen said it will always be a FEMA project, it will just now be a repair project. City officials will now go back to see what the repairs will cost starting today and present it.

Municipal authorities will also seek additional funding sources in the meantime.

He added that they will continue on their path to restoring the arts to Panama City, saying city officials and residents have already begun working to bring the civic center back.

“We’re going to keep looking at what’s the right way to do this. It obviously puts a wrinkle in how we thought we could do it, but we’re going to be able to get there,” McQueen said: “We’re going to have to work harder, we are going to have to find other means of funding to be able to support the effort that we have, which is to rebuild and rebuild a performing arts and events center that meets the needs of the community.”

City officials hired Wilson Butler-Fentress last year for architectural and engineering services for the new performing arts center, holding town hall meetings with residents to get their input.

“They’ve done a lot of work and there’s more work to do. We’re looking forward to seeing what their assessment is and what their opinion is and what they think is good for our community,” McQueen said.

McQueen said after four turbulent years, having a civic center they can be proud of again is what residents deserve.

“I think what I’m really proud of in our community is that our citizens continue to show their determination and determination to rebuild…no less the case, under these circumstances,” McQueen said. . “We’re going to pick ourselves up by our boots, and we’re going to keep going… we’re going to rebuild a facility that will meet the needs of our community.”

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