Just eight weeks into her term as Jacksonville’s mayor, Donna Deegan faced two overlapping emergengies that drew national media attention
On what had been a quiet Saturday, Mayor Donna Deegan drove straight to the Dollar General in the New Town neighborhood as soon as she got a text message about a reported mass shooting at the store.
“Headed that way,” Deegan texted back.
An hour after Deegan arrived at the scene of that racially-motivated shooting where residents were crying in the street, the National Hurricane Center issued an advisory for a storm brewing some 700 miles from Jacksonville off the coast of Cancun, Mexico. At the time, it was just called Tropical Depression 10.
Over a five-day period from that Saturday afternoon through Wednesday, Deegan faced the twin challenges of handling the reaction to the Dollar General shooting rampage — carried out by a white Clay County man who traveled to Jacksonville intent on killing Black people — while simultaneously preparing for what became Hurricane Idalia as the storm traveled across the Gulf of Mexico and bore down on Florida.
Deegan was not alone in dealing with two overlapping events that brought national headlines. Sheriff T.K. Waters was leading his agency’s investigation of the shooting while the Sheriff’s Office also joined the rest of the city’s emergency response team in getting ready for Idalia.
But the mayor is front and center at such times. Deegan, who had been mayor for just eight weeks, went to news conferences, church services, prayer vigils and Emergency Operations Center briefings. She fielded a phone call from President Joe Biden in the driveway of her home.
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Comfortable in media appearances after working 25 years in broadcast journalism, she did a barrage of interviews daily with local news organizations and national media outlets from the scene of the shootings, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office headquarters, the city’s Emergency Operations Center, her home and her car, Jacksonville City Hall and the Southbank Riverwalk.
If Idalia ended up being a glancing blow rather than a destructive hit for Jacksonville, the aftermath of the Dollar General store shootings would leave a more lasting mark on the city. In an interview, Deegan talked about what it was like to be the mayor during those fast-breaking five days and how she hopes her message of unity in the wake of the shootings can lead to long-term changes.
11 a.m.: Deegan greets participants at a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development homeownership event at Florida State College at Jacksonville’s campus in downtown. Earlier in the month, HUD had planned to have the event at Edward Waters University but moved it to FSCJ.
1:08 p.m.: Ryan Palmeter, a 21-year-old white Clay County resident, opens fire at the Dollar General store located a few blocks from the Edward Waters University campus in the New Town neighborhood. Palmeter kills three Black people — Angela Michelle Carr, 52, Anolt Joseph “AJ” Lagurerre Jr., 19, and Jerrald De’Shaun Gallion, 29 — and then kills himself as police converge on the store.
1:52 p.m.: Chief Administrative Officer Karen Bowling texts Deegan about the shooting incident. “Headed that way,” Deegan responds.
“My very first thought was that I needed to be there to comfort people and to make sure that people understood I wanted to be there with them,” Deegan said in an interview. “I knew there would be so much grief. By the time I got there, people were in the streets just crying.”
She said when she arrived at the scene, she knew the basic details that several people had been shot by a white man in his early 20s with a semi-automatic weapon.
As she learned more information from Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office investigators and from Waters, “I was sick to my stomach. That’s the best way to describe it — just felt a huge pit in my stomach.”
“I felt, in addition to just an immense amount of grief, a sense of personal responsibility and personal failure that this had happened,” she said. “I don’t think anybody who hasn’t been in this (mayor’s) seat can tell you — and I couldn’t have told you — that’s how I would feel. But I felt a sense that I had personally let down the community in a way that was personally unacceptable to me.”
3 p.m.: The National Hurricane Center issues an advisory for Tropical Depression 10 that formed that day east of Cancun, Mexico. Parts of Mexico are under a tropical storm warning and the western end of Cuba faces a tropical storm watch. Florida isn’t mentioned in the bulletin.
6:30 p.m.: Deegan joins Waters at a news conference at Sheriff’s Office headquarters about the shootings. She then does several interviews with local news organizations.
“I wanted to communicate that this wasn’t acceptable,” she said. “That we cannot over and over again simply accept these as inevitable and that we are helpless to do anything about them because we can and we should. As mayor, there are only so many levers I can pull. But as a people in the community, we need to demand that these things are addressed.”
9 a.m.: Before heading back to New Town to take part in Sunday morning church services she had decided to do the night before, Deegan does a nationally televised MSNBC interview from her home with host Katie Phang about the shootings.
9:15 a.m.: The National Hurricane Service issues a bulletin that Tropical Storm 10 has strengthened into a tropical storm. It’s given the name Idalia.
10 a.m: Deegan attends and speaks during the service at St. Paul AME Church.
11:30 a.m.: Deegan attends and speaks at Philippian Community Church. Both of the historically Black churches are located in the same neighborhood as the Dollar General store.
“People were grief-stricken, they were angry,” Deegan said. “The biggest thing is they were just absolutely exhausted. I just can’t imagine the level of tired that community feels.”
She said knowing someone would want to kill others based solely on skin color is a “punch to the gut” but people in the church services also had gone through such violence too many times already.
“It’s the exhaustion of the violence and the lack of change in terms of reaction to that,” Deegan said. “People are upset for a couple of days, then everybody wants to move on. (People say) ‘It’s too early to talk about changes. It’s too early to make it political.’
“It’s like this bad movie that keeps replaying over and over again for folks,” Deegan said. “And I feel like their exhaustion really is ours, too. But this community has just been absolutely inundated with this type of gun violence and hatred, and it’s just beyond me why we don’t react in different ways, and I’m bound and determined to do that as much as it’s in my control.”
4:30 p.m.: Deegan attends the Ax Handle Saturday 63rd Anniversary Commemoration event at The Jessie Ball duPont Center and presents a proclamation to Rodney Hurst. Hurst was 16 years old and the president of the NAACP Youth Council when he helped lead young Black demonstrators who did sit-ins at “whites only” lunch counters of downtown stores in the summer of 1960. White men attacked the demonstrators with ax handles.
5:30 p.m.: Deegan attends a prayer vigil honoring the shooting victims in a grassy roadside area in New Town. In addition to an array of local officials, Gov. Ron DeSantis goes to the vigil and faces heckling from some in the crowd.
Deegan said over the course of the day, the grief people felt earlier began to shift to anger and frustration.
“I think he (DeSantis) came to a place where he may have anticipated the reaction might not be positive, but I think it’s important for him to see that pain that people are feeling,” Deegan said. “It’s very important that if we are ever going to see other’s humanity, we’ve got to see each other face to face and we’ve got to tell each other the truth.”
Later that night: After the vigil, Deegan heads home and makes a stop at Publix to pick up some storm supplies for her mother as Idalia continues to strengthen in the Gulf. President Joe Biden calls and she talks to him while in the driveway of her Atlantic Beach house.
“He talked to me for a while about the grief in the community, about gun violence, about hate and offered to do anything he could to help our community,” Deegan said. “Basically, he was in a listening mode of what do you need? I think we were all at that point just sort of reeling from everything, and I was just grateful for the compassion and the phone call.”
7:15 a.m.: Deegan does an interview with CNN in a mobile studio parked outside her home. At the national level, the questions to her are still about the shootings. She then heads downtown to the Emergency Operations Center and does an interview during the drive with WOKV morning news host Rich Jones.
8 a.m.: Duval County Emergency Operations Center is officially activated for response to Idalia. At the Emergency Operations Center, Deegan signs a local state of emergency proclamation.
12:05 p.m.: Deegan leads a media briefing for Idalia at the Emergency Operations Center. It is the first time the public has seen Deegan together with others in the emergency response team since she became mayor July 1, but she has been communicating with Andre Ayoub, the chief of the emergency preparedness division, and Keith Powers, director of the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department.
“You know, I live with a meteorologist, so I pretty much knew the storm was going to be an issue,” Deegan said, referring to her husband, Tim Deegan of First Coast News.
She said knowing the Gulf of Mexico has extremely warm water at this time, she expected those marine conditions would fuel Idalia as it headed north over the Gulf. Even though that meant long days of preparation, she said compared to responding to the shootings, it was less stressful to work with experts from the National Hurricane Center, the National Weather Service and local agencies on decision-making for the storm.
“I felt like there was science to follow and decisions I could make personally that could ensure, at least as much as I could, that I could keep people safe,” she said. “I felt like there was more control in what I could do. So those were long days, but those were buoyed by a great team and a lot of support.”
6 p.m.: Deegan joins City Council member Randy White for a 90-minute town hall meeting in his district, part of her ongoing effort to have such question-and-answer sessions in all 14 council districts. The town hall has been on Deegan’s schedule for weeks.
She said she decided against postponing it to a later date because there wouldn’t have been enough time to spread the word to people planning to attend it. The mayor’s office later announced town hall meetings slated for Tuesday and Thursday would be rescheduled.
3 a.m.: A National Hurricane Center bulletin says Idalia has become a hurricane and will further strengthen into an “extremely dangerous major hurricane” as it moves toward the Gulf Coast of Florida.
12:05 p.m.: Deegan leads a mid-day media briefing at the Emergency Operations Center. She says there are no evacuation orders for Duval County but residents of low-lying areas and manufactured homes can go to emergency shelters.
Deegan said that while there was discussion of ordering evacuations, the forecasted conditions for Duval County didn’t warrant doing so.
“If you ask people over and over again to leave when it’s really not necessary for them to leave, they’re not going to listen to you when you really need to leave,” Deegan said. “We just felt that it was not necessary for folks, by and large, to leave their homes.”
2 p.m.: Deegan meets with the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department’s Urban Search and Rescue Team after their safety briefing at the Prime Osborn Convention Center.
Throughout the day: National media attention continues as Deegan does five interviews including on the Southbank of downtown with a Weather Channel meteorologist. She does interviews from the Emergency Operations Center with Scripps and with iHeart Radio, a broadcaster with multiple stations. Later at City Hall, she does interviews with the PBS NewsHour and with MSNBC host Joy Reid about the shootings and Idalia.
The schedule is so busy that when Vice President Kamala Harris tries to reach Deegan in the afternoon, she misses the call because she’s in the Emergency Operations Center. Deegan calls back to Harris’s office and thanks her for the support.
5 p.m.: The National Hurricane Center says Idalia has become a Category 2 hurricane and warns of life-threatening storm surge and hurricane conditions along the Gulf Coast of Florida overnight and Wednesday.
6:05 p.m.: Deegan does an Emergency Operations Center briefing that points to a westward shift in Idalia’s track that she said is “good news” for the impact of the storm on Jacksonville.
“Honestly, I wanted people to feel better about things because they were better,” Deegan said. “We said the things I wanted to emphasize like ‘don’t get in the water, don’t step on power lines, don’t drive if you don’t have to,’ but I hoped people felt a little bit of lightness from that briefing … and could breathe a little.”
9 a.m.: Deegan participates virtually in the morning emergency response preparation meeting while at her home. She then goes from her home to the Emergency Operations Center.
12:05 p.m.: Deegan leads a mid-day media briefing from the Emergency Operations Center.
6:05 p.m.: Deegan has a final media briefing for Idalia from the Emergency Operations Center. Idalia caused some power outages from gusting winds, and storm surge forced the St. Johns River over the bulkhead in Memorial Park in the Riverside neighborhood. But overall, the city was spared the damage that Idalia inflicted on Gulf Coast counties.
6:30 p.m.: Deegan heads home.
Friday night: Deegan meets with the family members of the three people killed in the Dollar General store shootings.
Saturday: A community meeting in New Town provides information about programs available to residents. Representatives from the mayor’s office are joined by mental health professionals and other service providers.