Hurricane brings out the best in Okeechobee

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee City Council had plenty of praise for the city staff, county staff and local residents at their Sept. 19 meeting at City Hall.

“I think we all feel very blessed we did not receive the brunt of the storm,” said Mayor Dowling Watford. “I would like to commend the city staff. I would like to thank the police department, the fire department and the public works department for the great work that they did,” he said.

“I think everybody really pitched in.”

He noted city police helped some in need who were outside the city limits.

“The police department was kind enough to escort me around right before and after the storm,” said the mayor, noting Sgt. Eddings drove him around to view the damage after the hurricane winds had subsided.

He said he noticed a friend’s business was damaged and called to let him know.

“When he answered, he sounded out of breath, I asked ‘how are you doing?’ He said ‘not well.’ It was not in the city limits, but there was a person in distress. Sgt. Eddings called the ambulance and escorted it in. The person was taken to the hospital and was in ICU and now is doing much better.

“I got a call from a sheriff’s deputy who happened to be in Buckhead Ridge, checking on a lady there. She didn’t have any food or water and needed a generator. I put it on Facebook and within minutes I had a generator for her to borrow. By then they were distributing water and MREs,” he continued.

“I appreciate the administrator (city administrator Marcos Montes De Oca) who was out all night long and about every 30 minutes I got a text or pictures of damage,” Mayor Watford said.

“The county staff was the same way. They were outstanding,” he continued.

“One thing that was mentioned at the EOC was the cooperation between the city and the county — that was outstanding. The sheriff’s department also did a great job,” he said.

The mayor said Florida Power and Light’s efforts since the storms of 2004 and 2005 to “harden” the system paid off.

As soon as the storm passed, community members were out cleaning up the debris, checking on friends and neighbors and helping each other, he said.

“I cannot believe when Sgt. (P.E.) Eddings and I were riding around, how many people were cleaning up immediately.

Especially in the Dean’s Court area, I could not believe the cooperation, neighbors helping neighbors.

“Our state and federal partners were extremely helpful. The governor was on almost every call to the EOC.

“The governor’s office, one of his aides, did call me twice to offer any assistance they could. Representative Pigman and Congressman Rooney visited the EOC.

“I also got two calls from the White House, the office of intergovernmental affairs, not the president,” said the mayor.

“Corps of Engineers were very active, particularly when we thought this was coming across the lake,” he said.

Libby Pigman of the South Florida Water Management District was at the EOC.

“Local media was extremely helpful,” the mayor continued, noting the Okeechobee News put updates on the newspaper website and on Facebook throughout the weekend and Wayne Cunningham was at the radio station the whole time, trying to keep the station on the air.

He said of the TV stations, the most helpful was WPBF. The mayor was even interviewed by CNN.

“The National Guard had the distribution center rolling.

Deputy (Jack) Nash and Matt Dorriety did a great job at the Agri-Civic Center and they also were very helpful when we needed specific items for individuals,” the mayor added.

“Local businesses got open just as quickly as they could to serve our residents, that was very helpful,” he said.

Many individuals and churches pitched in.

“A bunch of rednecks with a couple of trucks can probably do more than FEMA ever thought about doing,” he said.

In addition to making sure Okeechobee residents were taken care of, community members reached out to other areas in need.

“We were able to send some officers to Sebring to assist them,” said Mayor Watford. “We sent an officer to escort a FEMA truck. Thank goodness we were in good enough condition that we could help others.”

Councilman Mike O’Connor pointed out that the National Guard who helped in Okeechobee came from Fort Myers, an area that was hit hard by Hurricane Irma.

“They were some pretty good guys,” he said.

Councilman Gary Ritter said he also wanted to “commend our staff, the leadership that we have in all of the departments. I too was able to ride around with the city police.

“The first thing that I noticed was that we had some brand new oak trees that had toppled over. There were people out there putting them back in the ground.

“Just driving around, I could not have been any more proud to be part of the city than I was,” he said.

“There was an issue at the Golden Corral. There were some people who were not from Okeechobee who were driving through that decided they wanted to eat at the Golden Corral and they left four animals in crates in a pickup truck that had a topper on it with the windows closed. People going into the restaurant saw the animals in distress and called the police department,” he continued. “I was impressed with how we handled it and how animal control handled it.

“We haven’t had an event like that in about 10 years. I don’t think anybody lost a beat,” he said.

“I happened to be in a local store when two crews from FPL came in,” said Councilwoman Monica Clark. “They said they had been working on the east coast. They were happy to be in Okeechobee because wherever they went, people were bringing them food and cold water, really appreciative, not complaining.”

She said she was impressed by the way the members of the community helped each other.

“We had a 94-year-old neighbor who lost a lot of trees in her yard. The wrestling team came out and cleaned up her yard,” she said.

“I was so impressed how quickly our streets were cleared so people could get around,” she said.

“When Okeechobee has a disaster, everybody pitches in,” said Councilman Noel Chandler.

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