ESCAMBIA COUNTY, Fla. — Escambia County officials have announced plans to replace the Central Booking and Detention Facility in West Pensacola, which was destroyed by a natural gas explosion in April. Though a federal investigation into the explosion that killed two, paralyzed one and injured 184 is not yet complete; commissioners have elected to begin construction on a new facility outside the area’s flood zone.
Following the explosion, inmates were reallocated across the county’s three operational correctional facilities, as well as neighboring counties. Inmates will remain in these facilities during the construction of a replacement building, at a cost of between $7.5 and $14 million. Though a proposal to build a temporary structure had been presented to county commissioners, it was ultimately rejected after construction costs were estimated at between $17 million and $24 million. Commissioners are currently reviewing three potential sites throughout the county.
Current plans involve relocating the Central Booking and Detention Facility at an estimated construction cost of nearly $77 million. According to the Pensacola News Journal, this estimate could rise significantly if commissioners choose to also relocate the Main Jail, located nearby the destroyed Central Booking and Detention Facility, and within the same flood zone. The cost for this combined campus could run as high as $161 million.
Commissioners hope the project will be supported by in part by jail property insurance, the county’s $25 million flood insurance coverage, and federal disaster funding. However, The News Journal reported that, as federal findings as to the exact cause of the explosion have not been released, there is a possibility that the project will not be eligible for these funds.
“At this point, neither FEMA nor our insurance carriers have committed to any funding, nor will they until the cause is determined,” Escambia County Budget Chief Amy Lovoy told the paper in July.
Even if the county is granted the maximum Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) payout — which would only assist the county in replacing the property was lost, not improving or expanding it — taxpayers would still be expected to contribute roughly 12.5 percent of the total project cost. Depending on the scope of the project, this figure could range from $3.5 million to more than $73 million.
The natural gas leak that caused the powerful April 30 explosion originated in the jail’s then flooded basement. Both jail employees and inmates had complained of a gas smell, which in some caused sickness and vomiting, prior to the explosion. Several new staff members, including a doctor, several nurses and two mental health providers, have been hired to treat affected inmates. The explosions is currently being investigated by the State Fire Marshall's Office and the Division of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.