Hurricane recovery will take time, patience and community spirit

As the Okeechobee community recovers from the damage inflicted by Hurricane Irma, the Okeechobee News staff has done our best to keep our readers up to date with the latest information about the local community.  As we report the news, some community members are questioning the reasons behind some decisions made by officials.

Why didn’t school officials just close for the whole week so parents would know what to plan for? Why reopen just for Friday?

Since the hurricane hit on Sunday night/early Monday morning, the primary goal of the school officials was to make sure the schools were safe for the students, get the power restored and reopen schools as soon as possible.  Reopening the schools helps get the students back into their routine, and it also allows parents to resume their own jobs and schedules. Another important factor: Opening the schools means those students will be assured of two meals a day. It is a sad truth that some students rely on school breakfast and lunch for much of their daily nutrition. While the kids probably won’t get a lot of school work done with just one day back after more than a week out of class, it will mean those students are fed, that the parents will have a few hours when they don’t need childcare, and that the kids from areas where power has not been restored will get a break from the heat. For those who find that one day of more trouble than it’s worth, the parents have the option of simply not sending their kids to school as the superintendent has promised to be very liberal about allowing excused absences for that day.

Why is there a shortage of gasoline?

In 2004, after Hurricane Frances, the problem at the pumps was lack of electricity to run the pumps. By 2005, most stations had generators ready. This year the problem is an actual shortage of fuel. There are several contributing factors. Hurricane Harvey interrupted the work at fuel refineries in Texas, which meant less fuel supply available before Hurricane Irma hit. Floridians use more gasoline than normal when a storm approaches. The mass evacuation of 6 million Floridians as Hurricane Irma approached burned up a lot of gasoline. Getting all those people back home again burned more fuel. Floridians who “sheltered in place” stocked up on fuel for generators.  Florida gets most of its gasoline by ship from Port Tampa and Port Everglades. Both were impacted by Hurricane Irma and could not reopen until they were inspected and some repairs made. In some areas, roads were closed due to storm and flooding damage, making it harder for tankers to get through. All those factors mean it will take longer than normal to get all of the gas stations back in business.

Why do some areas have power restored while others are told it may be weeks?

Power company crews from all over the country are in the state, helping local power companies restore power to customers. But it’s a big job even with all the extra help. Power restoration follows a priority system. Top priority are life-saving services – hospitals, fire departments, law enforcement. All those critical services have generators, but those generators are burning fuel, and fuel is limited. Critical services must be in place to help everyone else get back to normal.  By association, those who happen to live next door the hospital will likely have power restored when that area is repaired. Those who live in more populated areas are likely to be restored before those scattered in outlying areas. If the choice is between restoring power to 200 customers in one neighborhood or 5 customers in a rural area, the majority gets priority. Sometimes, however, it’s just luck. On Monday morning, 90 percent of Okeechobee County had no power, but Ancient Oaks and Kings Bay still had power. Somehow those two subdivisions happened to be among the 10 percent that did not lose power Sunday night. If your neighborhood had a lot of damage it will take longer to restore than a neighborhood that had less serious damage. Be assured the crews are working hard to restore power to everyone, but it could take time. For those with medical issues, Okeechobee County has opened a special needs shelter at the Health Department.

If you have more questions, email me at kelsken@newszap.com and I will do my best to find the answers. Remember, as Emergency Operations Director Mitch Smeykal says, “Hurricane recovery is a marathon, not a sprint.” We will get through this, but it is going to take time, patience and hard work.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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