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After Ending Up In The Eye Of The Storm, Polk County Begins Recovery

Eight out of every 10 homes in Polk County were without power in the aftermath of Irma, whose eye swirled directly over the western part of the county during the wee hours Monday. 

Irma’s eye passed directly over the western part of the county, and even though the wind was fearsome, the damage wasn't as bad as many feared.

Irma has rekindled a somewhat familiar sound that hasn't been heard in Bartow in about 14 years: chainsaws.

Bartow city workers were busy cutting trees that toppled a trio of power lines feeding homes along Floral Avenue.

Fred Rhoden took it all in from his wheelchair, parked in the soggy grass of his front yard.

“We've been without power since the storm hit, and we're going to be without power for probably another two weeks,” he said.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media

When asked why so long, he said, “The whole power grid's down. So, short on poles, short on what you would think there would be plenty of, there's not. Gonna be a bit. Gonna be a bit…”

But Rhoden and his neighbors don't have to worry about spoiled food in their refrigerator. Generators hummed all around - a legacy of Hurricanes Charley, Jeanne and Frances, which slammed into Polk County in 2004.

“All the houses on this block have generators. As a matter of fact, I was just talking to him about getting some gas brought in. We'll trying to keep fuel moving,” said Rhoden, who bought his generator 14 years ago, when the last three hurricanes roared through.

Eight out of 10 homes in Polk County lost power after Irma took a slight jog to the east and passed directly over the western part of the county. Sunday night,  the Category 2 storm blew gusts of about 115 mph through Bowling Green, Fort Meade and just west of Mulberry and Lakeland.

Polk's county seat, Bartow, was just to the east of the eyewall. A few blocks from Rhoden's home, Jimmy Stewart wasn't so fortunate. A huge oak made a direct hit on his front bedroom. Stewart's son Jordan says his 9-year-old cousin was sleeping there, but the tree was stopped by ceiling beams just a few feet above his bed.

“He woke up screaming. So we had to go in there and drag him out,” said Jordan Stewart. “Which luckily, we have solid concrete walls. So that held the tree good enough where he'd get out before anything else came down.”

Jimmy Stewart said there may have been a bit of divine intervention.

“Every stud in this house - the people who built the house originally - has got a Bible verse on every stud in this house,” he said. “And so I think that's what protected everybody within.”

But even providence couldn't keep his home from being flooded. They're now waiting for a crane service to take the tree down so they could put up what was a familiar site here in 2004 - a blue tarp.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
A breach in a phosphate retention pond along Old Homeland Road in Bartow.

Just a couple of miles farther down Old Homeland Road, a "road closed" sign warned motorists not to stray much further beyond. There, a breach in the wall of a phosphate retention pond poured sand and water over the road, coating it with several feet of wet sand.

An unknown amount of phosphate process water spilled into a ditch beside the road. State environmental officials say this land was historically mined and reclaimed and was sold to a private company called Clear Springs. The water apparently did not affect any homes.

But for much of the southern half of Polk, people breathed a sigh of relief for damage that could have been much worse. On Tuesday, police officers were only busy directing traffic into the two gas stations open in Bartow and one further south in Fort Meade, that stretched nearly a mile down U.S. 17.

And in Lake Wales - which had bore the brunt of Hurricane Charley more than a decade ago - the most damage I saw was the steeple of the First Baptist Church now in its front parking lot. No divine providence intervened there. 

Credit Google
The eye of Hurricane Irma passed over Polk County

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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