Downed tree limbs, not destroyed structures, marks Irma’s passage


In less than 24 hours, the most oft-used phrase in Palm Beach County switched from “hunkering down” to “dodging a bullet.”

As people from Boca Raton to Jupiter to Belle Glade emerged from their mostly darkened homes on Monday to assess how much damage the surprisingly ferocious winds of Hurricane Irma inflicted during its relentless 18-hour onslaught, most were relieved to find downed tree limbs, not devastated dwellings.

Even some of the most fragile parts of the county escaped serious injury.

“It’s much better than I expected,” County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said after touring the impoverished western communities surrounding Lake Okeechobee.

Fearing the lake would overflow the Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds it, anxious county officials ordered an emergency evacuation of Belle Glade, Pahokee and surrounding communities as Irma took aim. Instead, like most residents in the eastern part of the county, downed trees, loss of power, water-soaked yards and minimal building damage were the main post-Irma headaches for Glades’ residents.

“I know it sounds cliche, but we definitely dodged a bullet,” McKinlay said, repeating a phrase countless other county officials used throughout the day.

The biggest dilemma for many residents, who were forced to stay home from work after spending a day trapped in their homes, was boredom. But even as beer and lattes starting flowing at mid-day at Clematis Street bars and bistros in downtown West Palm Beach, Hurricane Irma undoubtedly left heartache and horror in her wake.

An elderly woman in Palm Beach was found dead in her home. Three animals — a tree frog, a toucan-like bird named Aracari and an otter named Rudder — died at the Palm Beach Zoo, probably from storm-related stress, zoo officials said. Hundreds of frail people remained at the county’s special needs shelter at the South Florida Fairgrounds because their lives depend on electricity to power medical devices — electricity that, thanks to Irma, no longer exists at their homes.

Further, for some, Irma was terrifying. Strong winds ripped through Wellington’s French Quarter, leaving at least one mother and daughter temporarily homeless. A Delray Beach woman was rescued after the roof of her home on Northeast Fourth Street was ripped off and water began to pour in.

“My whole life was in there,” Debbie Jennings said tearfully of her water-soaked home and ruined belongings.

Overall, however, a scene at a boat yard near Tequesta was more typical. While wind gusts as high as 84 mph peeled aluminum walls off a three-level boat storage building at the Jupiter Pointe Club & Marina, none of the boats were damaged.

Many appeared stunned that damage overall wasn’t more severe.

“I think we were very fortunate,” said Royal Palm Beach Mayor Fred Pinto. “It could have been a heck of a lot worse. All along, we were saying, ‘Prepare for the worst and hope of the best.’ I think we got the best.”

But, that doesn’t mean life will quickly return to normal or that full tally of damage has been made.

Power remains out for roughly 500,000 county residents and another 3 million customers in Florida Power & Light’s 35-county coverage area.

With some traffic lights still out at some intersections, electric lines down and some roads blocked by downed trees, county officials ordered a curfew from dawn to dusk. It will remain in effect indefinitely, said County Administrator Verdenia Baker. Power outages are also keeping county schools closed at least through Wednesday.

FPL officials said it could take weeks before electricity is restored to all homes. But, they promised to mount the largest power restoration force in the company’s and the nation’s history — nearly 18,000 workers from 30 states and Canada to bring power back to the region.

Likewise, tree limbs homeowners are dragging to the street won’t disappear anytime soon. Trucks operated by haulers who are expected to flood in from out of state have to be certified to collect the debris, said Willie Puz, a spokesman for the county’s Solid Waste Authority.

Trucks will begin picking up yard waste on Thursday but it could take weeks before the mountains of vegetation disappears, he said. This past year’s near hit by Hurricane Matthew generated a whopping 95,000 cubic yards of garbage and yard trash — an amount likely to be far eclipsed by Irma, he said.

“We’ll just keep making additional passes until it’s all picked up,” Puz said, adding that debris collections wouldn’t be limited to normal schedules. Regular garbage collection is to resume today.

At the same time additional power and trash crews are being assembled, the South Florida Water Management District is still assessing damage to flood control structures in its 16-county district to restore water flow the region depends on. Similar damage assessment exercises are being conducted by other governmental agencies.

County officials said it could be days before a full damage assessment is made so money can be sought from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. An emergency declaration is expected to be made to turn on the money spigot.

Bill Johnson, director of the county’s Division of Emergency Management, urged patience.

“We just had a Category 4 storm breeze by us,” he said, recalling Matthew’s wobble that spared the county this past year.

Then, he added: “We dodged a bullet again.”

Staff writers Bill DiPaolo, Pat Beall, Lulu Ramadan, Kristina Webb, Susan Salisbury and Tom D’Angelo contributed to this story.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Salmonella outbreak linked to raw chicken sickens 92 people nationwide, CDC says
Salmonella outbreak linked to raw chicken sickens 92 people nationwide, CDC says

Salmonella linked to raw chicken has made dozens of people sick across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday.  In total, 92 people from 29 states have been sickened in the outbreak.  The CDC said 21 people have been hospitalized, but no one has died.  The people who became sick reported...
‘Golden Girls’- inspired cereal flying off store shelves, already hard to find
‘Golden Girls’- inspired cereal flying off store shelves, already hard to find

The Emmy Award-winning “Golden Girls” sitcom, featuring the adventures of four feisty older women, ran for seven seasons starting in the mid-1980s. More than 30 years later, the show is still airing on cable TV and its still-growing fan base spans the generations. >> Read more trending news  Maybe that’s part of the reason...
California surgeon, girlfriend charged with rape in 5 more drugging and assault cases
California surgeon, girlfriend charged with rape in 5 more drugging and assault cases

Update 6:45 p.m. EDT Oct. 17: A California surgeon and his girlfriend are facing five additional charges of drugging and raping women, according to news reports. >> Read more trending news  Reality TV star and celebrity orthopedic surgeon Dr. Grant Robicheaux, 38, and Cerissa Riley, 31, are accused of “rape by drugs, kidnapping...
Boynton area man accused of pawning 4-carat diamond ring he didn’t own
Boynton area man accused of pawning 4-carat diamond ring he didn’t own

A 60-year-old Palm Beach County man has been charged with wire fraud after federal agents said he pawned a $1.3 million diamond ring he didn’t own. Scott Meyrowitz, who has listed his business address at an estimated $750,000 house west of Boynton Beach, was arrested Wednesday. He was taken before U.S. Magistrate Dave Lee Brannon, who set bond...
Sources: Aide at Palm Beach County special needs school arrested after he slapped and choked student
Sources: Aide at Palm Beach County special needs school arrested after he slapped and choked student

An aide at a suburban West Palm Beach school for children with severe disabilities was caught on video "egregiously manhandling" a student, including slapping and choking the child, Palm Beach County School District officials familiar with the case told The Palm Beach Post Wednesday evening . Humberto Navarro, 52, of suburban...
More Stories