Manatee sheriff evacuates 345 jail inmates amid potential plant collapse

Kathryn Varn, Tampa Bay Times
·2 min read

PALMETTO — Amid concerns about the potential collapse of the Piney Point reservoir, Manatee County Sheriff’s officials are evacuating about 345 inmates from the county jail’s first floor.

Sheriff Rick Wells said Sunday that moving all the inmates to the second floor, which was the plan county officials originally announced, would be too much of a security risk. Instead, the jail is taking the inmates by bus to a location Wells declined to share Sunday afternoon while they were still being moved.

The remaining inmates and staff on the first floor will be moved to the second floor, along with medical equipment. There were 1,063 inmates in jail Sunday.

“The first floor will be vacant,” Wells said.

The Manatee County Central Jail at 14470 Harlee Road is in the northwest corner of an evacuation zone surrounding the old Piney Point phosphate mine. About 300 million gallons of wastewater is threatening to breach a reservoir there and flood the surrounding area after the lining supporting the structure is believed to have torn last week.

County and state officials are working to pump water out of the reservoir to reduce the quantity in the event of a breach. The pond held about 480 million gallons last week. As of Sunday, that amount had depleted to less than 300 million gallons.

Wells said the jail isn’t expecting more than a foot of flooding. He added that the jail has planned for floods before during hurricanes.

As news spread of the county’s initial plan, a small group of protesters gathered at the county’s Emergency Operations Center to urge officials to evacuate the jail.

Florida state Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, whose district includes north Manatee County, said in an interview Sunday she feels comfortable with Wells’ plan.

“If his plan is actually executed with how he explained it, I have no issue with it,” the St. Petersburg Democrat said.