Working day and night Sept. 11-17
ABOVE: Linemen work to restore power at the intersection of A1A and Ridge Boulevard in Ocean Ridge. Many crews worked 12 to 16 hours a day to restore power.
Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
BELOW: These linemen from Toronto drove 1,500 miles in 17 trucks to restore power in Highland Beach. In one day, the 23 men put an end to a week of no electricity. Residents delivered doughnuts, sandwiches and cookies to the workers.
Photo by Peggy Gossett-Seidman
Related Stories: Majority of turtle nests had hatched before Hurricane Irma arrived | Libraries provide refuge after storm | Delray ponders changes after residents don’t get message to save water | Irma blows beach project off projected timeline
By Henry Fitzgerald
That was a close call.
After Hurricane Irma glanced off the northern coast of Cuba and headed north toward South Florida on Sept. 9, it appeared we were going to get clobbered.
But it jogged west, with the eye doing major damage to parts of the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of more than 130 mph.
It then struck the Naples/Fort Myers area as a Category 3, sparing us on the East Coast the brunt of the devastating hurricane-force winds, flooding rain and storm surge.
More than 520,000 power outages were reported in Palm Beach County — 70 percent of FPL’s accounts there.
But as for damage, it was mostly shattered trees, uprooted shrubbery and minor damage to homes and condos.
Keep reading for synopses of what happened during the storm and what’s still going on in our South County coastal communities.
Before the storm Sept. 5-8
Brian Silverstein (left) and Phil Wotton, division chief for Delray Beach Ocean Rescue, work to disassemble Silverstein’s sailboat mast before Irma’s arrival.
Photos by Tim Stepien and Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
Although the city was spared the devastation that happened on Florida’s west coast, its beaches suffered some damage.
The storm eroded sand placed on the beach as part of the renourishment project and likely will cost millions to restore, said Coastal Program Manager Jennifer Bistyga. She added that the city’s dunes and the beaches were “deflated,” losing height and width.
“You can see the sand bar just sitting offshore and I am confident some of the material lost will come back. Similar to Hurricane Sandy [in 2012], the loss of height on the beach is usually not recovered naturally by wave action, while the beaches will regain some of the width as the waves work the sand back onto the shore,” Bistyga said. “The recent beach renourishment project acted as it was supposed to. There were losses, but if we had not had the renourishment project, the beach conditions and the structures adjacent to the beaches would be in much worse shape.”
• • •
Spanish River Park in particular had extensive damage, city spokeswoman Chrissy Gibson said. “The entrance to the tunnels [under A1A] could barely be found.”
Officials planned to reopen the northern portion of the park and its popular dog beach on Oct. 6, but the central and southern portions were to remain closed.
“It could be a few more weeks,” Gibson said.
Boca Raton contracted on a preliminary basis to spend $6.4 million on debris removal.
“That’s the initial. We expect these costs to escalate,” City Manager Ahnell told City Council members at the Sept. 26 meeting.
The city also spent $182,000 on emergency tarps, reconstruction of traffic lights, and food and supplies for emergency response employees.
Still to come are “significant” personnel overtime costs and other expenses, Ahnell said.
“We’re probably going to be in the $10 million-plus range for what was a fortunate sideswipe of a hurricane,” he said.
Most all of it should be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he said.
• • •
Pilots and passengers hoping to take advantage of the new U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility at Boca Raton Airport might have to wait a little longer, thanks to Irma.
Already slightly behind schedule due to turnover in contractor West Construction’s field supervisors, the project suffered another setback when work had to be discontinued because of the storm.
Originally scheduled to open in late summer, the new Customs facility is now projected to be ready for use by the public in late November or early December.
“We expect the majority of work will be done by the middle of October,” said Boca Raton Airport Authority Executive Director Clara Bennett.
Once substantial construction is done, teams will begin moving equipment in and putting final touches on the building.
While the construction site fared well in the storm, some water did get into the building, causing minor damage to flooring, some of which will have to be replaced.
Once it’s open, the new $4.3 million station will make it easier for air passengers — as well as boaters — coming from outside the country to clear Customs.
Now, planes coming from outside the country planning to land at Boca Raton Airport must first stop at an airport with a station, such as Palm Beach International Airport or Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.
Overall, Boca Raton Airport suffered minimal damage and was open for use Sept. 11, the Monday after the storm. By the next day, tower operations returned to normal.
The airport’s two service providers, which operated on generators while electricity was out, also resumed regular operations once power was restored.
The city’s employees did an “amazing job with everything associated with Hurricane Irma,” Mayor Steven Grant said on Sept. 21.
Because residents had three or four days’ warning prior to Irma, some placed sofas and other large items on the street for bulk pickup, along with tree trimmings and palm fronds. City workers couldn’t pick up all of the items before the storm, he said, leading to complaints from those residents after the storm.
As soon as the winds were down to 40 mph or lower, city crews cleared a path through the debris to allow Florida Power & Light and its contractors to restore residents’ power, the mayor said.
• • •
Jeff Livergood, the city’s public works director, said it would take between 45 and 60 days to pick up all of the hurricane debris. City crews began clearing the debris on Sept. 12. He estimates a total cost of $2.1 million.
Residents should separate the vegetation debris from other storm debris, he said. They can bag the leaves, but the bags will be picked up later.
In addition, the city spent $400,000 cleaning up its parks and golf course, according to Livergood. The city’s five waterfront parks, including Oceanfront Park, opened on Sept. 15, he said.
City buildings sustained $100,000 in damage, Livergood said.
The hurricane didn’t affect the Town Square plan, said Colin Groff, assistant city manager. Staff is on track to finish analyzing the plan in late October and have a presentation the commission can vote on in November, he said.
The majority of the town’s mobile homes were unaffected by Irma.
Town Council President Sue Thaler said she knew of only one resident who rode out the storm in his home. Most evacuated well ahead of Irma’s arrival.
Thaler said the town was pleased by the constant presence of Boynton Beach police patrols during the event and the performance of Able Tree Service, the contractor charged with debris removal.
“Able did a good job cleaning things up after the storm,” Thaler said.
During the storm – Sept. 9-10
Palms swayed in the wind Sept. 9 as Hurricane Irma approached Boynton Beach. This view looks east across the Intracoastal Waterway from Harry Woodworth’s backyard during one of the gusts. ‘Many times we could not see even the two boats less than 250 feet away!’ Woodworth said.
The City Commission on Sept. 26 gave interim City Manager Neal deJesus approval to increase the rate paid to debris haulers in an effort to keep them working in the city.
Gov. Rick Scott allowed the Florida Department of Transportation to hire debris-hauling contractors without going through a bidding process, de Jesus told city commissioners. Scott wanted to quicken the pace of hurricane debris cleanup in the Keys and Miami-Dade County.
As a result, contractors left Palm Beach County cities where they were making $7 per cubic yard to earn as much as $18 per cubic yard hauling debris in Miami-Dade. The local AshBritt representative was paying the difference to keep his haulers in Delray Beach and other cities, but he now wanted to renegotiate the rate, deJesus said.
Commissioners unanimously agreed to pay $14.50 per cubic yard with an added minimum of at least nine trucks initially, and then 15 trucks within 96 hours of signing the contract.
AshBritt wanted the extra money, Commissioner Shelly Petrolia said, but it could not agree to provide extra haulers. As a result, the city has only a few haulers picking up debris.
In addition at the Sept. 26 meeting, commissioners agreed to have haulers clear debris from the city’s gated communities. Normally, deJesus said, FEMA requires a pre-storm ordinance for it to reimburse cleanup on private property unless the agency thinks it poses a public-safety hazard.
“It’s hazardous,” deJesus said.
Residents in the gated communities need to move the debris into the swales for pickup, he said.
He told commissioners the $1 million extra cost might not be recoverable, but they approved it anyway. The city could make a case that hauling costs also increased for other local and county governments.
At the start of the meeting, two men who live in gated communities asked for the debris pickup because they are taxpayers and deserve this city service.
• • •
Delray Beach fared OK during Hurricane Irma, Mayor Cary Glickstein said after Irma’s winds damaged trees and downed power lines.
“I’m very pleased with how staff handled the pre-, during and post-storm activities,” he said. “We had no serious injuries.”
The dune at the city’s beach did its job, said Rob Barron, the dune management consultant.
“It doesn’t look pretty with all the seaweed and salt on it,” he said on Sept. 12, “but in another month, the plants will be thriving.”
The seaweed helps to fertilize the plants, he said.
Delray Beach staff started clearing debris at 2 a.m. Sept. 11, just after Irma swept through the city.
“Nearly 75 percent of the city’s major arteries were blocked by storm debris,” deJesus told commissioners at a special meeting on Sept. 13. Public works, utilities and fire rescue staff worked in the wind and rain to trim trees and help clear a path through the storm debris to allow police and fire-rescue vehicles to respond to emergencies.
Commissioners will further discuss the hurricane response at their Oct. 10 workshop.
After the storm – Sept. 11-12
Days of turbulent seas suspended sand in the ocean water flowing through the Boynton Inlet. One veteran police officer at the scene said the color reminded him of a mint milkshake.
Photos by Jerry Lower/
The Coastal Star
Mayor Scott Morgan gave a heartfelt thank-you to police officers “for selflessly staying in this town, staying here in the Police Department, camped out in this commission meeting room and in offices throughout Town Hall, at a time when it appeared to be a very serious, destructive storm on its way.”
Morgan, opening a rescheduled Town Commission meeting Sept. 18 after nearly a week without electricity, said the officers’ sacrifices were something he and all town residents “are very, very grateful for.”
Town Manager Greg Dunham, who also stayed at Town Hall, agreed.
“They were really working beyond what most people would ask of them, and they did it without any complaints,” Dunham said.
Objects akimbo – Sept. 11-12
Irma’s hurricane-force gusts had their way with everyday objects.
The cupola from a beach gazebo and sailboat found new locations along Old Ocean Boulevard in Ocean Ridge, and sand swallowed this chair (BELOW) in Gulf Stream.
The brick facade of the Ocean Lodge in Boca Raton tumbled during Irma.
Numerous tires settled on the beach in Highland Beach and Boca Raton.
Photos by Tim Stepien, Michelle Quigley and Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star and Lois Haymes in Highland Beach
Town commissioners were hot under the collar — literally and figuratively — because residents in the influential southern portion of town didn’t get electricity restored until almost a full week after Irma.
During a recent commission meeting, town leaders said they wanted to know why it took so long for power to be restored to the area, when other sections of the town had electricity much sooner.
“I want answers,” said Vice Mayor Bill Weitz. “I want an executive from FPL to come to the town to explain why it took so long.”
Weitz is one of several commissioners who were left without electricity until early Sept. 16, the Saturday after the storm.
Commissioner Rhoda Zelniker said she’d like to explore the feasibility of having underground lines for electricity, cable and telephone services.
“I think it’s something we should investigate,” she said.
In addition to the calls for action from commissioners, Town Manager Valerie Oakes sent a letter Sept. 21 to the town’s FPL account manager requesting a meeting to address specific questions regarding the status of a utility pole-hardening project and a tree-trimming project conducted by the power company.
• • •
As it raced up the Florida peninsula, Irma left a little bit of rubber in its tracks.
Residents living along the coast in Highland Beach peered out their windows several days after the storm and saw dozens, maybe even hundreds, of tires scattered along the beach.
Distributed with one here and one there, rather than in large groups, the tires appeared almost as if someone had placed them deliberately.
“I was shocked to see all those tires on the beach,” said resident Lois Haymes.
Where the tires came from is a bit of a mystery, although one of the most plausible theories is that they broke away from an abandoned artificial reef created in the 1970s off Fort Lauderdale’s beach.
The reef, which included an estimated 700,000 tires, is being disassembled because it never quite lived up to expectations as a welcoming habitat for marine life and actually resulted in the destruction of natural habitat as loose tires scraped the ocean floor.
Where some of the tires are going, however, is more certain.
Clayton Peart, president of Universal Service Corp., which is contracted to clean private beach properties in Highland Beach as well as the Delray Beach public beach, said his teams had scooped up between 40 and 50 tires and taken them to the solid waste transfer station several days after the storm.
In addition to whitewall tires and regular tires, some covered in barnacles, Peart’s crews found a set of large truck tires that might have come off a sea wall or a boat.
Although Irma is long gone, it may be a while before all the tires are picked up, since it appears that more are being covered by the sand and may vanish from view until another strong wind blows through.
Immediately after the hurricane, Lantana Mayor Dave Stewart drove through the town, street by street, and gave this assessment:
“I saw no damage to buildings, a lot of landscaping in disarray, and at the beach we lost part of the road.
“We never lost water pressure and had only one sewer issue in our town.”
While there was some flooding on the streets, including on Beach Curve Road on Hypoluxo Island, and at the parking lots at the boat docks, Stewart said it was less than during the king tides.
“We all really dodged a bullet,” he said. “I was really proud of staff, they went out at 2 a.m. and cleared roads so emergency vehicles could pass. It was very good that the county set up a curfew before and after. We could get where we needed to go without having sightseers.”
The beach reopened and has more sand than it did before the storm, according to Councilman Ed Shropshire.
Volunteers helped clear vegetation in Lantana parks, including the Nature Preserve, which should be back in shape for the annual Halloween party on Oct. 20.
Municipal offices were open Sept. 11 after the hurricane, and both the Town Council meeting and budget hearing were held as scheduled. Attendance at both meetings was slim, although all five council members were there.
• • •
The Carlisle retirement community on Ocean Avenue in Lantana had power Sept. 13 following Irma and had staffers working to dry out apartments on the east side of the building that had water damage. Also, a few trees limbs littered the east parking area.
Residents were able to return starting Sept. 14.
Town Manager Linda Stumpf said damage was minimal, though some residents had to wait 10 days after the storm to get their power restored.
“We lucked out,” Stumpf said. “There was no major damage, most of the people here evacuated and there was no problem with curfews.”
Police Chief Hal Hutchins estimated that somewhere from 10 percent to 20 percent of the town’s permanent residents ignored calls to evacuate the island during Irma and rode out the storm in their homes.
That was more than enough people to keep Hutchins’ department busy. The chief said his dispatchers were answering about 400 calls during their 10-hour shifts as Irma blew through, roughly 20 times the usual rate.
Often the calls were mostly about making a human connection and getting the reassurance that someone was on duty to respond in case the worst happened — which Hutchins and his officers were.
“Considering how many new residents we had here,” the chief said, “I think we did as well as we could.”
Hutchins said he drew on nearly four decades of law enforcement experience to help guide the town through the storm.
He stationed officers and employees in Town Hall the day before Irma hit so they’d be rested, in place and ready to go when the storm arrived. Two of his officers, one from Ohio and another from Connecticut, had never been close to a hurricane before, the chief said, so preparation was especially important for them.
Hutchins coordinated street patrol strategy with neighboring police departments to ensure access to bridges was controlled. And after Irma passed and the bridges opened, he made what seemed an unusual request to Boynton Beach officials.
“It’s something I’ve never done before,” Hutchins said. “I called Boynton and told them they should come and open their park. People needed a place to go, and I didn’t need them to be driving around. I could corral them in the park.”
With Boynton’s Oceanfront Park open, residents from both sides of the bridge who had been hunkering down for days had somewhere safe to go to release stress.
Though Irma was a pain, the town had no significant incidents of human misbehavior or injury, and property damage was minimal.
“You fly by the seat of your pants,” Hutchins said. “I was pleased with the way things came out.”
Hutchins and his department won unanimous praise from the Town Commission during its meeting Sept. 19, and so did Town Manager Jamie Titcomb.
“Jamie was always here,” Commissioner Gail Aaskov said. “He was working his butt off the whole time. I think we all appreciate that. I think he did a tremendous job.”
Restoring order – Sept. 11-17
South Palm Beach
Police Chief Carl Webb said the town “fared very well” during the storm and the beaches actually looked better after it.
“It looks like the beaches gained some sand,” Webb said, “though it probably will blow back out.”
The chief said he was pleased that residents took Irma more seriously than last year with Hurricane Matthew, when many ignored calls to evacuate.
“A lot less folks stayed this time,” he said.
Enjoying the aftermath – Sept. 15
For those who suffered damage, the Federal Emergency Management Agency opened a Disaster Recovery Center in Boynton Beach at the Carolyn Sims Center, 225 NW 12th Ave. It is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Representatives from multiple government agencies are available to answer questions or help people apply for assistance.
People who need help may also register for FEMA assistance online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 800-621-3362. For hearing-impaired people or those with speech disabilities who use a TTY, call 800-462-7585.
Help is available in most languages, and information on the registration process is available in ASL at: www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/videos/111546.
Willie Howard, Sallie James, Dan Moffett, Steve Plunkett, Rich Pollack, Jane Smith and Mary Thurwachter contributed to this report.