Dave Rogers for Florida 17

Fighting for Florida's future

Fire!



Photo of a building on fire


On the morning of July 13th, 2015, I received a call at about 5:30 a.m. from the property manager of Belleza at Ponte Vedra condominiums. I was the condo association president. I was at my fiancé's, ten minutes away from my home. She said, "Building 100 is on fire." I told her I'd be right there.

I threw on my clothes and raced to the property. I couldn't get to the gate because St Johns County Sheriffs had closed Ponte Vedra Lakes Blvd to non-emergency traffic. I parked the car at the complex across the street. When I got out of the car, I could see flames shooting above the trees and I was scared.

I ran to the front gate and made my way past the emergency crews in the parking lot and encountered many of the residents. I spoke to them and learned that everyone had made it out safely. There are twenty units in Building 100. A pet dog and a cat hadn't made it out.

The property manager was on her way up from Palm Coast, but likely wouldn't be on the property for an hour or so. I told our residents to gather in the clubhouse and went to open it up.

It was a massive fire. Crews from St Johns County, Jacksonville Beach and Jacksonville battled it all through the morning. The building was a total loss.

This is not a scenario one envisions when deciding to serve on a condo association board. I had no prior experience, but I had a lot of help. Summer House, another condo complex on A1A had had a similar fire a few years before, and one of our board members and one of our owners had property there. They gave me some great advice in the early hours, and all through the process as well.

One memory that stands out was the reaction from the American Red Cross volunteers who arrived to assist our residents. They told us that they were impressed that we knew the names and contact information of every resident in the building. That didn't make any sense to me, and they explained that in many multi-unit fires, management has incomplete records of who actually resides in the building. That was the first confirmation that we were doing the right things.

When confronted with a major property loss like this, it's important to have good insurance. As president of a solid board with responsible members, we had good insurance. More importantly, we had a current appraisal! By the afternoon of the fire, I could assure our owners and residents that we would have the resources to rebuild Building 100. Some of the people who'd lost their homes were friends of mine, and I felt for them because of the sudden chaos they found their lives thrown into. I promised all of them that I would do everything I could to restore their homes as quickly as possible.

The ensuing days and weeks were challenging. I had to face the residents who'd lost their homes and keep them apprised of the steps we were taking to allow them to recover as many of their personal possessions as safety permitted. This was often difficult, but we were aided by some wonderful volunteers from the SJC Fire Department who helped residents access parts of the building that were safe to enter to retrieve their belongings. But many people couldn't, and others had lost everything in the initial blaze.

I learned a great deal about how to communicate news and information that was often unwelcome. But I was confident we could get the building rebuilt in a timely fashion. Most homeowner's policies only provide temporary lodging coverage for a limited time, so timely action was essential if we were to ensure we didn't add to the burdens of our owners' losses.

Nothing in my life had prepared me to be responsible for construction of a twenty-unit condominium building; but I did know how to find answers and the right people and resources to accomplish a mission. We had a great attorney, with whom we had a longstanding relationship, a great professional engineer who had been advising us for years, and we were lucky to get a great insurance adjuster who gave me sound advice on the steps we needed to take. We secured the services of an architect and a general contractor, and worked closely with the county building department. We also had an outstanding property manager who took great care of our residents throughout this ordeal.

In short, it was an enormous team effort, and I was the leader. While I'd never been a developer or a public works manager, I do have experience with leadership. I had retired in 2013, so I had the time to devote to this project, and I wanted to ensure my friends didn't have to suffer any longer than was necessary.

In the end, reconstruction took far longer than the six to eight months I naively promised to our residents on the day of the fire. And it was often a frustrating and exhausting experience. When my term of office ended, reconstruction was nearly complete. I decided not to run for my seat on the board, I'd served for about eight years and felt I needed to step aside.

But it remains one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I look back on the work we did in those days with pride and satisfaction. When facing a great challenge, the difference between success and failure often comes down to leadership. While humility is an essential quality of a good leader, I'm confident in my ability to meet a challenge.

I'll bring that ability to Tallahassee. I have no illusions about the difficulty of the challenge.


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