One year ago today, Villagers were gripped in fear as they battened down the hatches.
Hurricane Irma, a category 5 storm, had wreaked havoc on several Caribbean islands and was barreling toward Florida with winds that at one point reached 185 mph as the eye passed over Puerto Rico.
As Villagers scampered to make last-minute purchases of food, supplies and gasoline, Irma briefly made landfall on the morning of Sept. 10 in the lower Florida Keys. It then roared ashore that afternoon at Marco Island as a category 3 storm and Villagers and other area residents prepared for the worst.
Some fled the community and headed north to stay with family and friends. Some decided to ride out the storm at home. And others headed for three shelters in the area – The Villages Elementary of Lady Lake, the Paradise Recreation Center and The Villages High School, which was overseen by Army Reserve Capt. Brian Cain, a 2007 VHS graduate who is the son of Villages Fire Chief Edmund Cain.
Irma finally barreled through Florida’s Friendliest Hometown in the wee hours of the morning on Sept. 11 as a category 1 hurricane. But it certainly didn’t feel like a weakened storm as it slammed the community with winds in excess of 70 mph and gusts at close to 100 mph.
Irma and its massive wind field left behind quite a mess – damaged homes and businesses, uprooted trees and downed powerlines. And thanks to 12-15 inches of rain that Irma dropped on the area – along with large amounts of precipitation that preceded the storm – Villagers, some without power, were forced to deal with multiple sinkholes opening up and flooding issues across the community, from yards to streets to golf cart paths and tunnels to homes in the Historic Side of the community.
Floodwaters made the golf cart bridge over U.S. Hwy. 27/441 impassable, essentially cutting off many elderly residents who relied solely on golf cart transportation from being able to buy groceries and get to medical appointments. The dilemma was so serious that members of a Facebook group called The Villages Friendly Folks took it upon themselves to spend five days delivering water, ice and food to those in need.
Lines at area gas stations that had formed before the storm returned. Debris covered streets in Villages town squares and many different neighborhoods. And at least one downed tree landed against a Villages home as it toppled from the high winds and soggy ground beneath it.
Golf courses throughout the community were flooded, as they are designed to take excess water from such large-scale storms. The water level in Lake Miramar in Spanish Springs rose almost to the top of the bridge on Paige Place. Golf cart tunnels were under water. And some homes had water from nearby lakes touching their back porches.
But as bad as it might have seemed, The Villages and the surrounding areas actually fared much better than other communities in the path of the devastating storm that caused $50 billion in damages and was blamed for 129 deaths.
“We dodged a bullet with Irma,” Project Wide Advisory Committee Chairman Peter Moeller recalled during a meeting last week.
District Manager Richard Baier agreed, but added a caveat that reminded everyone that this year’s hurricane season is far from over.
“Our systems worked extremely well,” Baier said. “But it is very important not to be lulled into a false sense of security.”
Since Irma blasted through The Villages a year ago, Baier and company have made several positive improvements that should help the community fare even better in future hurricanes, staring with one of the biggest problems – debris removal.
Last year, long after Irma had come and gone, large piles of debris could be found throughout the community. The heaping mounds left Villagers seething. And some even went so far as to take debris from their homes and streets and dump it at recreation centers and postal stations.
The issue arose because Crowder Gulf, the company Villages CDDs had contracted with ahead of Irma to remove debris, lost its subcontractors to South Florida communities that were willing to pay well above the FEMA reimbursement rate. The problem prompted one Crowder Gulf official to tell Community Development District 4 Supervisor Don Deakin that his subcontractors had “abandoned” him.
Because of that issue, the District made major changes in its debris-removal plan. It has awarded contracts to three different companies, with Ceres Environmental Services Inc. being the primary contractor. Hamlet Underground LLC and Phillips and Jordan Inc. also are available to provide services if needed.
Baier said he likes the contract because there are financial incentives in place for the lead contractor to do everything possible to take care of the community’s debris-removal needs.
“They’re compelled to really give us good service,” he said. “Otherwise, they will get work but they renegotiate their contract rate down.”
Baier said another positive is that the companies are required to submit detailed plans explaining how they will serve the community.
“What equipment they have available at that time and what they can guarantee us,” Baier said. “What manpower they have available. What their plan is as far as staging. Where are they going to truck the material? So all of that is different than before.”
Finally, Baier said, the new contracts allow the companies to be part of the District’s Emergency Operations Center and logistical planning before, during and after the storm. And they are required to provide a “quick-hit team” if needed.
As for hurricane stormwater runoff, Baier said the plan remains in place for golf courses across the community to come into play, as “that worked well last year.” He said plans also call for water to be drawn from Chatham Lake and Paradise Lake and moved elsewhere. But he said it’s important to note that Paradise Lake, where some flooding issues occurred during Irma, actually was designed many years ago for a 25-year storm, not a 150-year storm like Irma.
“Like any design project, it’s designed to the standard of the day,” he said, adding that systems in The Villages are designed for a 100-year storm (an event that has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year).
Another improvement that should be beneficial to residents on the Historic Side of the community is the purchase of two generators at a cost of $400,000 by the Amenity Authority Committee. That equipment will be used at the Golfview and Mira Mar pump stations.
Baier said other projects in the works involve an irrigation system that allows the ability to bleed down certain ponds, emergency overflow systems for the Evans Prairie area, several pipe rehabilitations for stormwater transfer and sump pumps to keep the golf cart tunnel at Mariposa Way and Morse Boulevard free of standing water.
Not surprisingly, many Villages residents also have stepped up their hurricane preparedness plans. In the past 11 months, the Architectural Review Committee has reviewed applications for the installation of 110 generators in the community. The ones being approved are the high-end Generac brand that have muffler systems and range in price from $8,000 to $21,000.
The Villages Homeowner Advocates (VHA) did its part by holding a June workshop at the Paradise Recreation Center titled Staying Alive: Everyday & Emergency Preparedness in The Villages. Spearheaded by Joan Testa, VHA North vice president, she and other VHA members distributed fliers inviting residents of the Historic Side of the community to attend.
“There are 3,691 rooftops in all three Villages on the Historic Side and each household received an invitation to come,” Testa said.
The more than 300 attendees learned about a variety of topics from Deputy Walter Wolf of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office; Nehemiah Wolfe, head of Community Watch; Lt. John Longacre with The Villages Public Safety Department; Tommy Carpenter, Lake County Emergency Management director; and Gregory Holcomb, Lake County Public Safety communications technologies manager.
“It was a wonderful event,” said Carolyn Willette, who attended with members of the Neighbor to Neighbor group. “It didn’t just prepare them for hurricanes. It prepared them for many things as they continue living here – where to go and who to call.”
Meanwhile, Villagers like Richard St. Amant won’t soon forget Irma. The Village of Orange Blossom Gardens resident said he’s glad to see water already being drawn out of Lake Paradise, which sits directly behind his Debra Drive home. But he’s still well aware of what can happen when the lake crests and water rushes into his yard.
“The day before Irma, the water level in the lake was 13 inches below the top of the retaining wall,” he said. “The day after, it was 23 inches above it.”
St. Amant said his lower-level Florida room and work room were flooded, as water stretched all the way from the lake into his front yard and onto his street.
“It took out our central air conditioner,” he said. “Luckily, the water didn’t touch the insulation under the floor, or we’ve had been in a real bunch of hurt.”
St. Amant, who shared his thoughts on the issues he and other Historic Side residents faced during Irma in a September 2017 Villages-News.com opinion piece, said he was lucky to find a window unit air conditioner that cooled his living room and bedroom until his damaged central air system could be replaced. But he added that someone then reported him to Community Standards for having the window unit.
“They told me to just let them know when I took it out,” he said, adding that his wife suffers from Parkinson’s disease and he had to keep their home cool following the storm.
All told, St. Amant said, he spent 10 days following Irma removing flooring, paneling and damaged furniture. And he had to get an engineering appraisal of the integrity of the house.
“Thank goodness my wife had the wisdom to hook us up with FEMA flood insurance,” he said. “It had never flooded here before, but three years after we got the policy, we did get flooded and it compensated us very well.”
As for the chances of facing another Irma-strength hurricane in the future, St. Amant said he doesn’t believe it’s likely.
“I don’t think this will happen again in my lifetime,” he said. “At least I hope not.”