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