More than 30 FCSO employees have reported symptoms they believe are linked to the building, which was previously a hospital and has been evacuated since June.
When county-hired experts and local Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association representatives peeled up carpet and punched more than two dozen holes in the drywall of the evacuated Sheriff's Operations Center building Jan. 3-4, they found water beneath the carpets and what appeared to be bat guano and old wood and insulation in the walls.
"I think that this has confirmed what my concerns were, that I’ve been arguing for for 14 months, and why we had to cut into these walls," Sheriff Rick Staly said Jan. 4. "I think it's a vindication of my employees, and I think this building has significant issues. "
"I will not allow my employees to go back into that building until I can be assured this is a completely safe building. We’re a long way from that."
— RICK STALY, Flagler County Sheriff
Staly said it would be premature to speculate about whether the county-owned building is savable: Terracon Consultants, the firm conducting the testing on behalf of the county government, is still evaluating and will release a report once it's done.
Still, Staly said, "What I observed today certainly confirms my serious concerns about this building and the safety of my employees working there. ... I will not allow my employees to go back into that building until I can be assured this is a completely safe building. We’re a long way from that."
Staly said it was his understanding that additional testing will be conducted concerning the moisture found under the carpet and the animal feces — which appeared to be bat feces, but haven't yet been tested — found behind the drywall.
The building has been evacuated since June because more than 30 Sheriff's Office employees have stated that they have physical symptoms — rashes, respiratory issues — they believe are related to the building. About 60 employees would ordinarily work inside the building. They're now dispersed between the county courthouse and the jail administrative building.
The Operations Center was constructed in 2015 from the bones of the former Memorial Hospital building. The fact that the building — which sat vacant for years before the county bought it in 2013 in order to remake it into an Operations Center — had an old bat infestation was already known, Staly said.
But that was supposed to have been dealt with, and old wood and insulation was supposed to have been removed, during the construction process, Staly said. "It would appear that that was not accurate information," he said.
Sheriff's Office Cmdr. Mark Strobridge, the FCSO's spokesman, described what he saw at the Operations Center Jan. 3-4. He qualified his statements, noting that he isn't an expert in building construction.
"They lifted up some carpets and floor tiles and found visible moisture, still wet, and some pieces that appear to me — again, I’m not an expert — to be mold in the floor, across the entire complex," he said. "That’s why they want to do more testing."
The floor was visibly wet, not just moist, and the water was right under the carpet, he said.
The drywall in the building doesn't reach all the way to the floor, he said, so water wasn't coming up into the walls from the floor. But there was evidence of corrosion in some of the old metal within the walls, and some of the insulation in the walls "was in such deteriorated condition, where we found the potential [bat] droppings and such, that it was almost unrecognizable as insulation," Strobridge said. "Insulation is usually pink or yellow. This was like an ugly gray."
Strobridge said that earlier assessments of the bat infestation had concluded that it was in the building's west side, but the the Jan. 4 testing found what appeared to be bat droppings on the east side.
"There's a potential that that infestation was worse," he said. "Now, it may or may not cause any issues; it’s just what was found. The significant concern, and the county's consultant's only real preliminary recommendation, was that it warrants further investigation as a result of the moisture intrusion across the floor."
County Attorney Al Hadeed, along with County Engineer Faith Alkhatib and engineer Richard Gordon, was present for the testing.
Writing in an email sent the evening of Jan. 4 to Alkhatib, all five county commissioners, County Administrator Craig Coffey and General Services Director Heidi Petito, Hadeed stated that the two-day testing period had ended, but testing would need to continue at least one additional day.
"Older insulation was found under newer insulation in certain areas near the roof level," Hadeed stated. "The building specs called for retaining the older insulation and adding the new insulation on top of it. Samples of the older insulation were taken and are to be tested. The insulation was found in sealed cavities. In one of those samples, in one corner of the building, the consultant found a small amount of material that appeared to be bat guano. The material will be sampled and tested to confirm its origin. The site was not in the area where bats were residing at the time of construction."
Although the wall cavities were dry, he wrote, one cavity and wall surface near the fridge and freezer in an evidence room contained mold, and a sample was taken for testing. That area had already been identified as in need of repair, and had been pointed out in the Center for Disease COntrol's evaluation of the building, which had noted moisture issues.
Old wood found at the roof level was "sound and dry," Hadeed wrote. "Please note that any bad wood was to be removed as part of the construction project."
Of more concern, he wrote, was the water found beneath the flooring.
"On site, the County Engineer authorized further examination although such work was not within the protocol. Substantial moisture was found," Hadeed wrote. "It is not certain whether the moisture was from water being whisked into the slab from outside runoff or welling up from below the foundation or another source. The wall cavities are completely dry. The expert team from Terracon will be assessing this and are preparing a supplemental protocol for this purpose. This is the most disturbing finding of the visitation and must be followed closely."
County Commissioner Joe Mullins, himself a developer, attended the testing process and said he'd developed burning and itching on his arms after being in the building and reaching around inside its walls.
"Bat secretions are what I’m concerned with," Mullins said. "I was in there an hour and a half, and my arm broke out in a rash. It’s obvious that’s where it’s coming from. They’ve been concerned about water, but you’ve got to be concerned about the bats — bat toxins and bat feces."
He said the insulation should have been replaced in the construction process. "If this was done 10 year ago, I wouldn’t be that shocked, but the fact that this was done within five years — it’s very shocking that that much stuff was left in there, and was allowed to be left in there," he said. "I am very concerned about who allowed this improper building to go on. That person needs to be held responsible."
He added that the old wood in the building appeared to be unsealed, meaning bat guano could seep in. And if water is intruding through the slab, "then that slab needs to come up" — a costly process.
"There’s more that’s going to have to be opened up," he said. "The question now is, is the building salvageable, or do we need to start over?"