Irma downs trees, floods parts of Belle Glade; dike holds

The Palm Beach Post - - HURRICANE IRMA - By Wayne Washington

BELLE GLADE — Life in Belle Glade isn’t a bowl of cher­ries even with­out a hur­ri­cane smash­ing trees, flood­ing neigh­bor­hoods and snuff­ing out elec­tri­cal power.

But one day af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma roared through South Florida, the res­i­dents of one of Palm Beach County’s poor­est com­mu­ni­ties were faced with each of those un­pleas­ant re­al­i­ties.

Like peo­ple through­out the storm-bat­tered county, Belle Glade’s res­i­dents were hack­ing through the de­bris and pick­ing up the pieces of their lives — lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively.

For Pa­tri­cia Ford, that means try­ing to find a new place to live for her and her daugh­ter, Artierra Ruf­fin.

As Irma ap­proached, res­i­dents in Belle Glade and other com­mu­ni­ties near Lake Okee­chobee were evac­u­ated be­cause of fears the storm’s wind and rain could com­pro­mise the lake’s dike sys­tem.

Ford, how­ever, couldn’t leave. She is a house­keeper at Lake­side Med­i­cal Cen­ter and couldn’t leave her job, she said.

She was al­lowed to take her daugh­ter to work with her as the storm raged.

When she re­turned, the mo­bile home she rents was wrecked. The storm had torn off the front door, tossed and drenched Ford’s fur­ni­ture and other per­sonal be­long­ings. Irma also had

dropped a large tree at her front en­trance that had to be hacked up and dragged to the side be­fore she could en­ter her home.

“Ev­ery­thing in there’s messed up,” she said be­tween tele­phone calls to the Red Cross and oth­ers who she hoped could help her find a place to stay. “Our clothes, our beds, ev­ery­thing’s messed up. Ev­ery­thing in the house is de­stroyed.”

Ford said she hasn’t had much luck find­ing help.

“They told me to go find a shel­ter in West Palm Beach,” she said. “I would have liked a voucher to a ho­tel or some­thing like that. I can’t stay in the shel­ter ’cause I’ve got to work.”

Mean­while, the Army Corps of En­gi­neers in­spected the 143-mile Her­bert Hoover Dike around Lake Okee­chobee on Mon­day morn­ing and found no dam­age.

Be­fore the storm the Corps pre­dicted lake wa­ter would likely wash over three of the weak­est sites, where con­struc­tion is un­der­way. At a news con­fer­ence in Clewis­ton on Mon­day af­ter­noon, a Corps of­fi­cial said no wa­ter splashed over the dike at the sites: south of Pa­ho­kee, near Belle Glade and Clewis­ton.

The Corps will con­duct more in­spec­tions to­day.

Many Glades res­i­dents did evac­u­ate to shel­ters. Their re­turn trip home was de­layed for a time by a downed power line on State Road 80. A long line of cars backed up east of Palm Beach Ag­gre­gates as a Florida Power and Light crew worked to fix the prob­lem.

As that crew worked, res­i­dents waited — and wor­ried about what they’d find when they got home.

“We’re com­ing from the shel­ter, try­ing to reach home,” said Calvin Ed­wards, a Pa­ho­kee res­i­dent. Asked what he thinks he’ll find when he reaches his home, Ed­wards said, “I ain’t got no idea.”

Not far from where Ed­wards stood next to his truck, Ger­arna Faustin, 11, waited in a mini­van with her fam­ily. “We evac­u­ated Fri­day be­fore the storm,” she said. “They said Lake Okee­chobee might bust, so we had to evac­u­ate.”

The shel­ter kept her fam­ily safe, Faustin said, but it wasn’t a fun trip. “It was hot, un­com­fort­able,” she said.

Af­ter the crew fin­ished its work, Palm Beach County sher­iff ’s deputies waved the traf­fic through.

Robert Brown of Belle Glade pulled up near his home by midmorning.

The area be­side his house was flooded, and a tree had been blown onto a neigh­bor’s car. Brown in­vited a re­porter and a pho­tog­ra­pher along with him as he en­tered his home for the first time since the storm.

The house was stuffy and dark, but ev­ery­thing was in place. The roof and win­dows held. There was no wa­ter dam­age.

“I’m all right here,” he said. “I’m all right. Thank you, Je­sus.”

Jane Schoen­field of Belle Glade was all right, too. Be­cause her house on South­east Sixth Drive has with­stood many a storm over the years, Schoen­field and her hus­band did not evac­u­ate.

“We pre­fer to be here so if some­thing hap­pens, we’d be here to fix it,” she said.

But Schoen­field couldn’t fix the one prob­lem Irma did cre­ate for her.

The wa­ter main just be­yond her front yard burst, ripped by muck shifted by rain from the storm, Palm Beach County Wa­ter Util­i­ties work­ers said. Wa­ter from the break flooded Schoen­field’s yard and the yards of sev­eral neigh­bors.

As she spoke to a re­porter, util­i­ties worker Felix Rivera was up to his eye­balls in murky wa­ter, feel­ing for the break and try­ing to re­pair it. It was Rivera’s turn to get wet, one of his co-work­ers chuck­led.

“It’s a ro­ta­tion,” said Charles But­ler, a Belle Glade res­i­dent and util­i­ties worker. “He jumped in there. By the time I got here, he was al­ready in the hole.”

Rivera was strug­gling to fit a metal sleeve over the area of the break. He got one on, but it wasn’t holding back the wa­ter. So he loos­ened it, com­pletely sub­merg­ing him­self to get a bet­ter han­dle on the work.

But­ler and two col­leagues looked on with pride as Rivera bat­tled the break.

“This is what we do,” But­ler said.

Sher­iff’s Deputy J. Read had an­other task in the af­ter­math of the storm.

She was knock­ing on the doors of homes that suf­fered ex­ten­sive dam­age. One mo­bile home on North­west Fourth Street had a tree crash down on its roof, with part of the tree also hitting a car parked out front.

In the sear­ing heat of the post-storm af­ter­noon, Read squat­ted be­neath the tree’s limbs, knocked and lis­tened for a re­sponse from some­one who might be trapped in­side. Hear­ing none, she went to the back of the mo­bile home, made her way through more branches and de­bris to knock and call some more. No one an­swered. Fi­nally, Read, one of her fore­arms bleed­ing from a scratch, got into her car and drove on to the next dam­aged house.


Palm Beach County util­i­ties worker Felix Rivera strug­gles to patch a bro­ken wa­ter main that was adding to flood­ing Mon­day from Hur­ri­cane Irma on South­east Sixth Drive in Belle Glade. “This is what we do,” co-worker Charles But­ler said.

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