Piney Point Emergency Prompts Florida Jail to Move Inmates to Higher Floor, Relocate Some

Law enforcement authorities in Florida's Manatee County declined to evacuate all personnel inside the local jail on Sunday, despite its proximity to the Piney Point reservoir that threatens to flood the surrounding area with toxic waste water.

A breach in the reservoir, which previously operated as a phosphate processing plant, forced hundreds of evacuations over the weekend as officials worked to prevent a full-scale deluge. Public safety representatives expanded a mandatory evacuation order for Manatee County residents on Saturday, when an unmitigated breach could have caused almost 400 million gallons of waste water to inundate the land surrounding Piney Point. With emergency crews endeavoring to transfer water from the breached reservoir into Tampa Bay, the number fell to about 340 million gallons on Sunday.

Although the Manatee County Jail is located within the area's mandatory evacuation zone, the sheriff's office directed staff and inmates earlier on Sunday to merely relocate to the building's second floor. The building's lower level was lined with sandbags to counter the impacts of a potential flood.

Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells later on Sunday directed local officials to transfer 345 inmates by bus to a different location, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Wells did not provide details about the new location, although he said that carrying out the department's original plan to move all Manatee County jail personnel to the building's second floor posed security risks as fears about the reservoir's structural collapse continued to mount. Of 1,063 inmates inside the jail on Sunday, those on the first floor who were not moved to an outside location were relocated with medical supplies to the building's second level.

Earlier on Sunday, protesters gathered outside of the Manatee County Emergency Operations Center to demand that local authorities allow inmates to be vacated from the area alongside residents living within the evacuation zone's borders.

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"We want them to be evacuated. We don't want them all just crammed into the top floor of the jail and left there while there's this, you know, once-in-a-lifetime catastrophic environmental emergency," one activist said during a televised interview appearance on ABC Action News during the demonstration.

"These are human beings," the protester added. "If everyone else gets to evacuate, why can't they?"

Manatee County Acting Administrator Scott Hopes said that updated flood modeling shows between 1 and 5 feet of water could fill the jail in the event of an increasingly severe breach at the reservoir.

"The current...models, which are updated as the volume reduces in the holding pond, only show 1 to 5 feet of water. The jail is a two-story facility. The sheriff has moved the medical unit and all personnel up to the second floor, which puts them well over 10 feet above the base level," Hopes told reporters at a news conference, which took place just before noon eastern time and included remarks from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who traveled to Manatee County as the state worked to assist local agencies' response to the crisis.

"So, currently, the staff and the temporary residents of the jail are safe, they are secured, the ground floor of the facility has been sandbagged," the administrator said.

Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis traveled to Manatee County over the weekend as the state works to assist local emergency crews responding to a breach at the Piney Point reservoir. Above, DeSantis speaks at a news conference in Miami Gardens, Florida, on January 6, 2021. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Newsweek reached out to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office for further comment but did not receive a reply in time for publication.

Updated at 7:25 p.m. ET to reflect Sheriff Wells' decision to move 345 inmates from Manatee County Jail to an undisclosed location.