After two months, Irma's impacts linger in Highlands County

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It was a storm so large, it looked like it could swallow the entire state of Florida.

In the days leading up to Hurricane Irma's arrival, it seemed as though it couldn’t decide which path to take along the peninsula, adding to the frustration and uncertainty of which parts of Florida will be spared. Residents across the state scrambled to stock up on supplies. Water aisles were empty. Carts were full of non-perishables. Homes with shutter boards lined the neighborhood streets.  

Irma made a last-minute turn into the interior counties after spiraling through the lower Florida Keys and making a second landfall in Marco Island. As the dark grey clouds slowly cleared the following the morning, curiosity rose along with the sun. There were Floridians fortunate enough to just experience days without power, but others are experiencing months of recovery.

Good Day Tampa is taking a look at the lingering effects of Irma in Highlands County. Throughout Friday morning, we shared stories of the devastation, but also of the determination to rebuild as a community. Some stories may even surprise you.


Highlands County was the second hardest hit county in the state. First being Monroe County with the Florida Keys. The winds stuck around for more than 12 hours, adding to the piles of debris.

"They just kept coming even though the hurricane passed," said John Shoop, Sebring mayor. "It seemed like forever."

More than 13,000 homes were effected throughout the county and Habitat for Humanity is taking a lead in the recovery process. Disaster core volunteers were deployed from across the country. Currently, they have more than 250 applications for critical home repairs. They need volunteers and money. Here's how you can help.


“Our campaign is Highlands Hammers Back," said Sarah Creekmore of Highlands County Habitat for Humanity. "We need volunteers. We need funds. We’re looking in Highlands to raise $4 million over the next four years to complete all the work we need to do.”


At one point, 90 percent of Highlands County was without power. For Kaila Albritton, her lineman husband immediately began working 20 hours a day after Irma. Ironically, the family, including their three kids, were without power.

"I know people think lineman are first in line but they're not," she said.

Feeling powerless, she thought she could help by providing meals to the hardworking men. She posted on Facebook asking for anyone to help and received an outpouring of support. Unfortunately, not everyone was supportive.


"One day we were feeding them and people were yelling at them to stop eating, go back to work and restore their power," Albritton recalled. "I just try to focus on the people who are positive."

It's a dangerous job. She asked her husband to quit, but doesn't think that will happen.


Mae Lee's Deli & Catering was in business for 28 years, and is the oldest mom and pop shop in Sebring. When the hurricane was en route to the city, Mae Lee's husband advised the family to pack their emergency bag to stay in the restaurant in case their home is devastated. But, the complete opposite happened.

It looked like a tornado hit their establishment. Their roof was found twisted and resting in the parking lot, and the exhaust fan fell to the floor. The restaurant has since been gutted, and now the family is waiting to hear back from the insurance company on how much repair money they will receive.

"We worked so hard for so many years," Mae Lee said. "It's devastating.


She is known as a local legend, said Pastor David Juliano of First United Methodist Church. The church fared well through the hurricane and began to give back to its community. Church members have provided more than 8,000 meals, repaired 15 homes and given away more than $28,000 for those recovering.


Among them include, Mae Lee, who found out she received $6,810 while on air with Good Day Tampa Bay.

“It’s such a joy and a privilege to have her and her family as a part of our church family," Juliano said.


Without power, other tools of communication became essential. Many believed Don Elwell, Highlands County Commission Chairman was pivotal during and after the storm.


“Nobody had power, but everyone had Facebook," he told FOX 13's Walter Allen. "I took all the information that we had and I culminated it into recaps. I tried to help out with breaking news as different gas stations were open, as ice was available here and tarps were available here.”

It could take years to rebuild, he said, but he also wants to make sure no residents are forgotten.

"There are some folks out there who are still waiting for insurance adjusters," Elwell said. "They are still waiting for FEMA help. They’ve got appeals into them. There are a lot of folks out there where its going to take quite a while to get their houses back to a new normal.”


The citrus industry took a devastating hit. Florida Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam announced Irma wiped out an estimated 70 percent of the citrus crop for the 2017-18 year.

Highlands County has more than eight million orange trees, covering about 12 to 13 percent of the county. Many residents are either employed directly or indirectly to the industry, so it's very important here, said Ray Royce of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association.

Fortunately, orange trees are resilient, he said.


"It blew pretty hard here for pretty long," Royce said. "They came out a bit better than some of us would have thought.”

For the 2017-2018 citrus industry, it wasn't exactly spared. Royce said growers lost anywhere between 50 to 70 percent of their crop.


Given a few trails, the Highland Hammock State Park finally reopened to the public by the first week of November. The duration, water and wind on the state park contributed to the level of damage, including to trees and power lines, said park manager, Morgan Tyrone.

"A good part of the state park is a wetland," he said. "So, we received a lot of water from the surrounding area."


The state park had to open in stages, with the campground opening three weeks ago. Safety was a priority. A trail could remain dangerous even though it looks cleared. Branches in the high canopies could be loose, Tyrone said.


The county has collected almost 800,000 cubic yards of debris. There have been volunteers from across the state and across the country who have remained in Highlands County after Irma to assist in the clean-up efforts.

"That a huge pile," said Clinton Howerton, the county engineer of debris. "It's a lot of stuff to pick up from a large county. It takes time to do it."

The good news is they hope to have the clean-up completed in time for Christmas.



The Humane Society of Highlands County had its share of damage, but they have also seen an influx of rescued animals at the Sebring location. In the days following Irma, the shelter saw an increase of 130 animals. 

"A lot of (owners) said they didn't know what to do, had nowhere to put them, so they just set (their pets) free," said Judy Spiegel, President of the Humane Society.


Sebring International Raceway had more damage than expected, with metal and billboards thrown around and clean-up began immediately. They made space for lineman from across the country to set up shop and restore power in the area.

"They had a small city there," recalled Wayne Estes, General Manager of Sebring International Raceway.


Estes said the track will be ready for the 12-Hours of Sebring event in March 2018.


Those empty shelves became a common sight in the days leading up to Hurricane Irma. There was a lot of preparation prior to the storm -- with last year's Hurricane Matthew providing a test run -- which benefited since Irma changed her path hours before midnight on September 10. Highlands County Sheriff Paul Blackman said a database of local volunteers, such as those who own airboats, was built.

"We just got unfortunate that it came up right up the middle," he said. "When you think you’re prepared, get 10 times more prepared. Don’t wait until a week before the storm. Start preparing now. Getting those things stocked up so that next summer you’re already ready and we don’t have to run around where there’s nothing on shelves left to get."