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Historic flooding hinders recovery efforts in rural Florida counties

Deputies in the water with a car
Hardee County Sheriff's Office
Deputies tend to a car in the water in Hardee County on Sept. 30, 2022.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, swaths of standing water are creating access issues in rural Highlands, Hardee and DeSoto counties.

In some Florida counties, officials are waiting for water to recede before the damage can be fully assessed.

Hurricane Ian made landfall along Florida’s Gulf Coast one week ago, on Sept. 28, where the coastal city of Fort Myers was particularly devastated. Farther inland, tracing the storm’s path through central Florida, Ian deposited unprecedented rain and flood waters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

In south central Florida — rural Highlands, Hardee and DeSoto counties — flooding is impeding power restoration, geographic access and damage surveillance.

Roughly a week since the storm, standing water is standing in the way.

Highlands County

Highlands County has seen significant structural damage during prior hurricane seasons, according to spokesperson Gloria Rybinski.

She said she remembers the destruction from high winds during Hurricane Irma in 2018, but the flood damage left by Hurricane Ian can’t be underestimated.

“For some people, it’s more dramatic to see your roof gone,” Rybinski said. “But it’s just as hard to see your living room flooded.”

Days after the storm, the county experienced near-blanket power outages, too. Almost 100% of customers were disconnected for at least 24 hours.

By Sunday, power returned to 90% of Duke Energy accounts in Highlands County.

The county is serviced by four providers: Duke Energy, Florida Power & Light, Glades Electric Cooperative, Inc. and the Peace River Electric Cooperative, Inc.

On Thursday, 200 customers serviced by local power cooperatives remained without power.

Point-of-distribution sites for residents closed operations on Tuesday in Highlands County, after distributing a combined total of more than 14,000 pallets of food, water, ice and tarps.

Rybinski, who rode along on attempted search-and-rescue missions, said that despite severe flooding, in some cases: “People didn’t want to leave.”

Though zero high-water rescues were performed, emergency responders transported food and water to areas to several low-lying mobile home parks that were identified as severely flooded: Avon Park Mobile Home Park, Dinner Lake Haven Mobile Home Park, Town & Country Mobile Home Park, Bonnet Lake Campground and Lakeside Mobile Home Park.

As water recedes, the full picture of agricultural impacts will also come into focus.

“There is a good deal of grove land and grazing pastures that are underwater,” she said.

Rybinski said conservative estimates show a blow to the citrus industry in Highlands County, with around 50% crop-loss totaling more than $40 million in damages.

Still, she said, ranchers are accepting cattle from Hardee and DeSoto counties, where flooding is even worse.

Hardee County

Historic flooding is hindering recovery efforts in Hardee County.

Since the storm made landfall, 115 boat-rescue missions and four pet rescues were completed, according to Hardee County Interim Chief James Simpson. He said numerous helicopter rescues to inaccessible areas were also performed by the U.S. Coast Guard.

“We’re in the demobilization phase right now,” he said, with no confirmed deaths as of Thursday.

Fire and EMS Strike teams were reassigned and dispatched to Lee County on Tuesday and Wednesday.

On Thursday, 99 roads in Hardee County were closed or rerouted due to severe flooding, sinkholes or bridge collapses, according to emergency management director Amalia Arista.

“We have an entire community that couldn’t get in or out because the river flooding was so bad,” she said.

Upwards of 18 inches of rain caused widespread flooding and the historic overflowing of the Peace River, which measured 27.3 feet at its peak.

Arista said the high waters that trapped people in their neighborhoods is continuing to make it unsafe to restore power – even as 99% of the county has been reconnected.

“As much as we’re trying to get everyone restored — until that river recedes, it’s really an unknown,” Arista said.

Due to the high volume of flood water, a growing number of homes must pass a safety inspection before reactivating power.

Incident Commander Ian Yocum said the combination of power outages and blocked roadways in Hardee County is making it difficult to communicate with residents.

"It really is word of mouth until you get cell service, until you get roads open," Yocum said.

Residents with cell service are recommended to monitor updates on the Hardee County Emergency Management Facebook profile.

To ensure communication with residents without cell service, officials are building 10 "trap sites," or plywood boards where information can be physically posted.

DeSoto County

On Thursday, two point-of-distribution sites were still active in DeSoto County to distribute food, water and tarps:

  • Save-A-Lot Parking Lot at 1325 E Oak St., Arcadia
  • Nocatee Elementary at 4846 SW Shores Ave., Arcadia

Updated information on shelter, fuel, road closures and PODS can be found on the DeSoto County Emergency Management Facebook profile.

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.

I tell stories about living paycheck to paycheck for public radio at WUSF News. I’m also a corps member of Report For America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.