Okeechobee County recovering from storm damage

OKEECHOBEE — “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and we were lucky,” Emergency Operations Center director Mitch Smeykal told the Okeechobee County Commissioners at their Sept. 14 meeting.

“If it (Hurricane Irma) had come through Cat 4, it would have been different,” he said.

He said the storm recovery is “going to be a long process but it’s going faster than I have ever seen it go.

“Within a month, we should be well on the road to recovery,” he added.

Mr. Smeykal said Okeechobee is in the same FEMA group as Glades and Hendry County. “Of the three, we had the least damage,” he said.

On Sept. 13, Okeechobee, Glades and Hendry counties were added to the list of counties eligible for individual assistance from FEMA. Applications for help can be made online at DisasterAssistance.gov, or on the FEMA Mobile App, or by calling 800-621-3362 (FEMA).

Communications stayed up throughout the storm, said Mr. Smeykal.

“We did not lose cellular service in town. Verizon and Sprint were up through the storm,” he said. “In 2004, for the first three days there was nothing.”

He said the communications providers have hardened their systems and put generators in the cell towers.

He said the county has not heard from CenturyLink.

Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said some businesses can’t process credit cards because CenturyLink is down.

The chairman thanked the county staff, the sheriff’s office and the fire/rescue department for their work before, during and after the storm.

He said some residents have questioned the meaning of colored ribbons on mailboxes. Fire/Rescue Chief Ralph Franklin explained the ribbons just mean that emergency workers have checked to make sure no one in that building needed to be rescued.

The ribbons are “strictly for us when it comes to searching that building,” he explained.

“It’s not the determination of whether they are in need or not. It just indicates we checked the building.”

For community members who have storm-related questions, the Emergency Operations Call center will be up from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Friday. Whether they keep the call center open after Friday will depend on the volume of calls, said Mr. Smeykal.

The call center number is 863-824-6888.

Chairman Burroughs also commended Mr. Smeykal.

“I thought you did an excellent job of organizing and working with everybody and coordinating with everybody.

“The fire chief, sheriff and you made a good team,” he said.

“I was glad we have some institutional knowledge — people remember 2004 and 2005,” said Mr. Smeykal. He said in some other areas people seem to have forgotten.

Chairman Burroughs reminded the public to beware of unlicensed contractors.

“If you have somebody who is going to do it cheap, and at the end of the day it doesn’t work, I’m sorry for you,” he said. “You have to have a licensed contractor to do this work.”

County Road Department director Pete DePasquale said part of Potter Road is closed.

“Sunday, before the winds got too bad, we had a road collapse on Potter Road,” he said. A part of that road is closed, but detours are in place.

He said the road department has patched other areas on Potter Road and Hilolo Road.

“On 15-C we have some bridge damage,” he continued. “The road is still passable on the north lane. We have one lane blocked off. We have contacted the state and FDOT bridge department. As soon as water recedes, we will get in here and look at it,” he said.

He added there are some road projects that haven’t failed yet, but are at risk to fail soon or if we get another storm.

After Hurricane Irma hit, there were trees down everywhere, Mr. DePasquale continued.

“This community is incredible,” he said. “Every neighborhood my crews hit, there were already people out with chainsaws, clearing at least one lane.”

He said all roads are clear, and the road department is concentrating on drainage.

Two neighborhoods had flooding – Playland Park and Platts Bluff.
“Platts Bluff is still under water,” he said.

“We put a pump out yesterday,” he said. “We will keep it out there until the water recedes.”

The areas with flooding do not have county drainage systems.

The main county drainage system is operating well, he said.

Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said after the storm he checked areas of the county that had flooding issues in the past.

“I was blown away at the improvements,” he said. “What the board has been doing with our drainage program has been doing very well.

“It’s very rewarding and vindicating to see how things are working now that we have put all of this time and money into the drainage system.”

Mr. DePasquale noted that Deberry Gardens was dry. He said before the improvements to the county drainage system “that place would flood with a summer rainstorm.”

“In Basswood, we’ve done spot fixes where our worst areas were,” he said.
“I look forward to continuing the program.”

County Commissioner Kelly Owens said community members have noticed the difference and appreciate the improvements.

Water issues were a lot less severe than with storms in years past, she said.

“In my area, I was surprised at how quickly it started to subside.”

“We know first hand how tirelessly our people are working and we are grateful for that,” said Commissioner Owens.

“I am also grateful for community members who have come out and helped each other.

“I am not at all surprised we have had the kind of pulling together from the community that we have seen. Okeechobee is unique in that – having everyone coming together to pull together.”

Mr. DePasquale said the repairs to Potter Road and some other areas cannot be made until they can get new culvert pipes.

“It will take weeks to get some of the larger pipes in,” he said. “Luckily we have a detour available so people can get in and out.”

He also complimented Florida Power and Light.

“FPL, I know they get a lot of flak,” he said. “They assigned a two-man crew with us before the storm hit. After the storm, they bounced from one road department crew to another. Everywhere we came to clear trees, if there were lines that had to be cut down, they were there to take care of it.”

“There are neighborhoods that are still without power,” said Commissioner Owens. “Everyone needs to remember that patience is required. In the past, we’ve been without power longer than we have now. It will take time.”

Russell Rowland, assistant to the county administrator/special projects, said there are some streets in Taylor Creek Isles that the garbage truck cannot get down due to low hanging wires (from cable TV). He said he requested they get a smaller truck to collect garbage in those areas.

He said the hurricane debris is about 80 percent vegetation and the rest C&D.

Residents can put storm debris on the county right-of-way, but are asked to sort it by type, keeping the different types of debris separated from each other.

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