It’s said that the tempest called Irma could’ve been worse. True. The hurricane that roared northward through Polk County late in the night on Sept. 10 and very early in the morning on Sept. 11 could’ve been a Category 3, 4, or 5 monster instead of only the Category 2 storm that had weakened after several hours over land.
Still, Irma packed a mighty wind and rain punch and landed a heavy blow. What she did was put lives at risk. She caused tremendous anxiety and hardship — financial and otherwise. She left some people without power and other services for more than a week. She disrupted commerce and created individual and commercial expense loads that I dare say very few people had budgeted. And she left property and horticultural messes that will take weeks — perhaps months — to repair and clean up.
Here’s what else Irma did, though. She created opportunities for those “random acts of kindness” we’re often admonished to do. (Out in the public, just before and soon after the hurricane, I and folks close to me personally saw some of these kind acts.) She often brought out the best in people. She created a spirit of cooperation and helpfulness in a time of emergency. She gave us another lesson in disaster preparation — getting and having a personal, family and/or business plan. (The early bird truly does get the worm — whether it be the worm of bottled water, fuel, canned food, or generator.) And she showed us the face of good leadership — that it really does matter who we elect to public office and appoint to posts of significant responsibility.
From the local (Lake Wales) level, to the county level, to the state level, and even up to the federal level, good and effective leadership was on display well before Irma blew through Florida and Polk County and well after her winds were reduced to nothing.
While most of us would like to have had lost electricity restored more quickly after the storm — further hardening of the Florida power grid against future hurricanes will require hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investment — I’m pleased to say those of us in greater Lake Wales generally were well served by our public leadership and, where relevant, by leaders in the private sector, including those at Duke Energy.
The city of Lake Wales emergency operations team, headed by City Manager Ken Fields and including Police Chief Chris Velasquez, Fire Chief Joe Jenkins, and Utilities Director Sarah Kirkland, was top notch through it all. City Clerk Jennifer Nanek was particularly helpful — a great resource for the Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Council. And Mayor Gene Fultz was his usual great cheerleader and supporter for the city, its management team, its residents, and its businesses.
At the county level, Polk County Emergency Management, led by Pete McNally, and the County Emergency Operations Center did their normal exceptional job. Commendation also goes to the office of Polk County Manager Jim Freeman; to county commissioners George Lindsey, Melony Bell, Bill Braswell, Todd Dantzler, and John Hall; and to the Central Florida Development Council for its business support. County officials were quick after the storm to supply business owners with information about resources for commercial disaster recovery. These included programs provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and emergency funds offered through the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program.
Lines of communication through the event called Irma were very good. Direct cell phone numbers were shared, texting was heavily employed, and Facebook Messenger really came in handy.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott was out front early and often, warning people to get prepared for the hurricane, to not take it lightly, to get to a shelter if necessary, and to follow any official public instructions to evacuate. Gov. Scott, backed by the very solid Florida Division of Emergency Management, was a fine leader for Florida before and after this storm, perhaps even besting the effective leadership then-Gov. Jeb Bush provided during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. The administration of President Donald Trump should be commended, too. Early on, the administration offered state officials any resources they might need from the federal government to prepare for and then recover from the storm.
At the Lake Wales Chamber-EDC, our role before and after Irma seemed best as a timely information provider and conduit — through social media and other means — and as a supporter for the businesses and partner-investors that support us. It took a big team effort to communicate effectively, and, from a business point of view, a big team effort is what we received.
CREDIT: Kevin Kieft