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After weathering Hurricane Sally, First Circuit courts are up and running

Senior Editor News in Photos

Regardless of how much damage they suffered, most Northwest Floridians are feeling the loss of the Pensacola Bay Bridge

Hurricane SallyWhen Hurricane Sally lumbered into Gulf Shores, Ala., it blasted Northwest Florida — where residents were expecting only a glancing blow — with Category 2 winds, 36 inches of rain, and 5.6 feet of storm surge.

Less than two weeks later, courts in the First Judicial Circuit — which includes Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, and Walton counties — are functioning again, said Chief Judge John L. Miller.

“We are back up and fully operational,” Judge Miller said.

The M. C. Blanchard Judicial Building in downtown Pensacola suffered water damage and a temporary power outage. By September 29, two of three elevators were still out of service. But given Phase 2 health restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the loss of a few elevators hasn’t been a hindrance, Judge Miller said.

The storm briefly delayed the resumption of jury trials, now set for October 12, Judge Miller said. Other than a few downed tree limbs, Judge Miller said his home escaped major storm damage, although he lost power for several days.

“We were very fortunate,” Judge Miller said.

Veteran Northwest Florida attorney Jeremy Branning, who represents the First Judicial Circuit on the Bar’s Board of Governors, is also feeling lucky.

Branning’s Gulf Breeze home experienced “minor exterior damage and some water intrusion.” Hurricane Sally’s storm surge advanced to within a few hundred yards of Branning’s property, but not all of his neighbors were as lucky, Branning said.

“We have people in this area whose homes are now construction sites,” Branning said. “There are some apartment complexes in Cantonment that are completely flooded.”

Jeremy BranningBranning spent the first few hours after the storm calling clients and colleagues at Clark Partington.

“It was a mixed bag of reports,” he said. “Everything from we did fine, we never lost power, to a partner who lives on Pensacola Beach who had substantial damage.”

Escambia and Santa Rosa counties were the hardest hit, Branning said. Hurricane Sally’s disastrous flooding has many residents comparing it to Hurricane Ivan, a more powerful storm that struck in September 2004, Branning said.

Regardless of how much damage they suffered, most Northwest Floridians are feeling the loss of the Pensacola Bay Bridge, Branning said, especially those who commute to Pensacola from surrounding bedroom communities, like Gulf Breeze.

Entire sections of the span were knocked out by runaway construction barges. According to the Pensacola News Journal, divers won’t be able to complete an extensive inspection until the end of the week.

Branning worries that it could take months to repair.

“One of the hardest parts is not knowing,” he said. “At least when we get an estimate, people will have something to look forward to.”

The fastest detour adds between 30 minutes to an hour to Branning’s daily drive, if he’s lucky, Branning said.

“I’ve heard horror stories of some people being stuck on I-10 for up to two hours,” he said. “The other options for travel between Gulf Breeze and Pensacola just weren’t meant for this, the volume of traffic is just too much.”

An accident on the Garcon Point Bridge earlier in the week caused a major bottleneck, Branning said.

Some attorneys are beginning their commute before dawn and leaving the office earlier in the day to avoid rush hours, Branning said. Others are leaving for work later in the morning, and working later into the evening hours.

The longer commute has been a scheduling nightmare for lawyers with school-aged children.

Hurricane Sally struck just as COVID-19 infection rates were falling and Northwest Floridians were returning to their offices and considering resuming social activities, Branning said.

“There was a sense of a return to normalcy,” he said. “There was that rebound, at least we had that perception.”

Now, another Northwest Florida tradition is taking hold, as charitable groups and faith-based organizations begin organizing the recovery efforts, Branning said.

“I guess one of the nice things is you get to see that part of humanity,” he said.

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