Two months later, Irma's impacts linger in Polk County

Irma is a name most Floridians won't soon forget.

The hurricane took aim for the state in September, with winds expanding well beyond the width of Florida. Irma was 650 miles wide. On weather radars, it looked like the monster storm was slowly swallowing the state.

Many were fortunate to experience days without power and minimal damage after it first hit the Florida Keys, then making a last-minute turn into the interior counties. For others, they are still living through the aftermath.

Two months later, recovery has barely started for many, while others are beginning to thrive. Good Day Tampa Bay is examining the lingering effects of Hurricane Irma, starting with the hard-hit Polk County. Throughout Friday morning, there will be stories of the stress, selflessness and the start of new beginnings.

In an interview with Polk Emergency Management Director, Pete McNally, the true test of the county's resilience came in 2004 when three hurricanes passed through. All arrived four decades after Hurricane Donna.

"It took us a couple of storms to get up to speed," McNally told FOX 13's Walter Allen.

Since then, officials have capitalized on those lessons, but the biggest challenge still is the debris brewed by the storm.

"A lot of it hasn't picked up yet," he said. "We are trying to get to those people and those places as quickly as we can, but again it's a large county."

Irma arrived two weeks after Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Texas. It's a case McNally called the "Harvey Effect."

"All the attention of the country was over there. Lots of resources were drained to Harvey that would've come this way if that had not occurred a couple of weeks before," he said.


There is an incredible amount of debris scattered across Polk County. Trees and branches were ripped down from one end of the county to another. In Winter Haven alone, there has been 250 tons of bagged materials has been collected, that's 44 tons a day. More than 25,000 cubic yards of vegetative debris has been collected, said the Winter Haven City Manager Mike Herr.

"It's equivalent to one football field," he said.

There are debris sites, where debris must be broken down even further before being hauled out, said Sam Roberts of Crowder Gulf. One Bartow site has processed over 300,000 cubic yards. The size of a washing machine is one cubic yard. So far, the company has processed over 1.8 cubic yards for the county.


Lake Wales Little League's facility has been around for 15 years, but was significantly damaged: dugouts loss shingles, a building had severe water damage, and the youth equipment were a total loss.

"Children drive by and see their fields just torn down. It's heartbreaking," said Amy Hayes, a little league parent.

A Facebook page and GoFundMe has been created for donations. The little league said they need new or used equipment and monetary donations to rebuild. They can provide the proper paperwork for taxes.


It's been an adventure, said the Hogg family. A multi-generation family were trapped on the second floor of a Lakeland home when water rose up to 20 inches. With the help of neighbors, eight people, including a one-week-old boy at the time, and eight animals kayaked across their flooded yard to drier land. Now, they are all living together in Ansley Morris' home, while her parents wait on the necessary repairs.

"It's still a work in progress," Ansley said. "We're cramped in a little space but it's nice to be with our family."


Power was a big issue. 15 million people lost power.

The owners, Jesse and James, of Urban Oak along Main Street in downtown Bartow, said they took over the business in August and within a month Irma arrived. The first thing they did was check on the restaurant, and there was electricity. Because they had power, they immediately opened up serving up food and drinks until they ran out. They remained open for those who didn't have air condition, and even those who just wanted to charge their phone. They met evacuees from across the state, even as far south as Key West.

"We were open for only five hours," James said. "We've never seen anything like it. It was amazing to see the community get together."

"We didn't expect to be that busy, but we were the only place that had power," Jesse said. "It worked out in our favor. We were able to meet some amazing people and help the community."

The Bartow Mercantile, an antique store, opened two days before Hurricane Irma. At the time, the projected path was further west. The owner, Becky, and her 97-year-old Lake Wales mother rode out the storm.

Becky became familiar with Urban Oak, because she frequented the business since she loss power in her home. She said it was difficult to even exit her home with the fallen debris, but an unknown man in a bulldozer came down the street and cleared the path.

"None of us could really get out of our driveways," Becky said. "He needs to come to the Bartow Mercantile. He'll get big discounts."


The City of Bartow has focused on reinvigorating its downtown and bringing in more businesses. The grand opening for most of those businesses were delayed for two months due to Irma. It didn't stop the owners and community from halting it completely. Together, they simply postponed it to this week.

"We did pretty well," said Kim Hancock, owner of Rafa Natural. "I think the community really rallied behind the revitalization that we were trying to do in Bartow, so their support is really what got to us through."


It is a 55 and older community but Irma was not respecting the elderly when it ripped off the walls of the Winter Haven Manor. The hole has been patched but it is inhabitable again and residents have returned home. The wall damage is several stories high.

"Since then all work has stopped and I'm not a manager so I have no clue what's going on. It's inconvenient but thank God we were able to get back in," said Brigitte Tejera, a resident.

The Stuart family is not totally comfortable yet, but they have a lot to be grateful for. Their 9-year-old nephew went to sleep the night of Hurricane Irma, and an oak tree crashed through the roof and landing inches away from him. They have been living with relatives just down the street ever since.


Law enforcement here ignored the wind speeds. Judd said it wasn't safe for "big box ambulances" to drive in the dangerous winds, so paramedics were placed in the Sheriff's department cars. They responded through the entire hurricane event, even when the eye was passing through. At one point, a power pole fell on a patrol car, but the deputy and paramedic, who were returning from a call, were uninjured.

"The reality of it is, that's our job to save lives and protect people, and just because the winds are blowing people still need help," Judd said. "We saved lives during the middle of that storm. There were people who had severe medical emergencies. They needed help. They can always depend on us. We're going. Some agencies didn't. We did."

Judd admits repairs are ongoing, even to his home.

"Repairs to my home are still waiting, but that's okay. There are other people with a lot worse damage," he said. "When a storm comes through a 2,000 square mile county and it damages us corner to corner we are very fortunate."


A lot of the public schools were transformed into shelters. Polk County Schools Superintendent, Jacqueline Byrd said when the storm's track shifted, they were forced to open more school shelters, not just for Polk County residents, but people living in the surrounding counties. Lessons were still taught this time around.

"If you have a building that's going to reach capacity and be really too small, we have to have another building for evacuees," she said.

Byrd said about 500 Puerto Rico students enrolled and they anticipate there will be more, especially after Hurricane Maria. Byrd said there are a lot of Polk County families and teachers originally from Puerto Rico.

Good Day Tampa Bay will be visiting Highlands County on November 17 to examine how Irma impacted the area.