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Levy escapes worst from Irma

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By Sean Arnold

The worst-case projections for Irma predicted a potential Category 2 – even 3 – barreling through the area, with sustained winds of more than 100 miles per hour, and a storm surge around 15 or 20 feet, leaving parts of Cedar Key and Yankeetown inaccessible for the foreseeable future.

Thankfully, the county was spared from that scenario.

Widespread power outages to the majority of homes in the county as well as an ongoing extensive gas shortage – before and after its arrival -- appear to be the worst the storm brought to Levy County, besides the sporadic damage to individual homes from fallen trees.

The center of what was left of Irma passed through Bronson in the early hours of Monday, Sept. 11, but the region appears to have been largely – or completely -- spared of hurricane-force winds.

Irma was the most intense hurricane ever measured in the Atlantic outside of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and set a record in sustaining winds of 185 miles per hour for 37 hours.

Over the weekend, some projections had it hovering over the edge of the Gulf of Mexico on the west coast of Florida, possibly coming back ashore in the Cedar Key area. But the coastal areas escaped the kind of flooding we saw from Hurricane Hermine in 2016, as Irma veered east and made its way up through the middle of the state. That more eastern track, and the dissipation of the back half of the storm – the part of the storm with eastbound winds – helped significantly reduce the storm surge in the area, even producing a "negative surge," as the front-half of Irma pushed water back into the Gulf for some surreal images.

Lt. Scott Tummond, the Levy County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer, said the maximum sustained winds in the county were clocked at 55 miles per hour.

“According to all of the predictions that we were getting from the National Weather Center,” Tummond said, “the storm surge was going to be massive, and the sustained winds would have put trees down everywhere. I’m sure we would have had considerable damage.

“I don’t know why, and I don’t really care, but by the grace of God, we were spared.

There were calls of between 12-17-foot tidal surges. When the backside of the storm fell apart, it didn’t come. “

Some restaurants in Cedar Key were already re-opened by midday Tuesday.

A mandatory evacuation was ordered for the county on Friday, Sept. 8, and Bronson Elementary

Levy County Commission Chair John Meeks in conjunction with Sheriff McCallum and the Levy County Emergency Management Division ordered a curfew for Levy County that lasted from Sunday 4 p.m. to Monday at 2 p.m.

Power outages begin to be reported Sunday afternoon, and more than 13,000 outages were reported in the county as of early Monday morning.

Cedar Key temporarily shut off its water services on Sunday out of precaution.

Schools were closed Friday, Sept. 8, and remained closed as of Wednesday, as some were still without power Tuesday.

Bronson Elementary School, Bronson Middle High School, Williston Middle High School, Williston Elementary School, and Chiefland Elementary School served as shelters during the storm. In social media posts, many evacuees and staff applauded the help they received during the storm at the shelters, including from a group of around 50 nurses from Texas.

“I teared up a bit when I saw (the nurses) walking up the sidewalk,” Chiefland Elementary School assistant principal Marlene Wiggins wrote in a social media post. “There are people here sheltering from all walks of life, from varying nationalities and religions. There are no riots, no fighting, no strife. Just people helping people.”

Evacuees from the general population shelters had returned home by Tuesday.

The decision to open Chiefland Elementary School as a shelter was a last-minute decision by the Levy Emergency Operations Center.

“We originally had no plans to open (Chiefland Elementary School as a shelter),” Tummond said, “because earlier reports from the state said there were portions of that school that might not sustain the wind shear rating. When we pulled the trigger, we saw several hundred people go to that location, which is to me a little frightening. They were planning on sheltering in place, instead of coming to Bronson.”

During the run-up to the storm, Chiefland experienced unprecedented levels of traffic as an estimated six million Floridians evacuated, with many taking to northbound U.S. 19, helping deplete supplies and gas in the city. A trip from Chiefland Middle High School to Fanning Springs took two hours in one reported cases on social media.

Stations that had gas were dealt long lines that slowed traffic even more. Local law enforcement helped navigate and usher through gas consumers. The Chiefland Police Department was praised on social media for its handling of the backed up lines. Gas, water and bread were already running out of stores on Tuesday, Sept. 5, as Irma’s projected path loomed over most of the Florida peninsula.

The southbound traffic picked up after the storm as residents to the south headed home to assess the fallout.

“What’s going to be our issue moving forward now is the return of those evacuees,” Tummond said. “Some of our private businesses in Chiefland haven’t had the opportunity to restock adequate fuel, so it’s going to tax us again. We expect it, but there’s not a whole lot we can do about it right now until the private stations build back up their reserves.

“U.S. 19, as far as I’ve been told, from the I-10 corridor down, is open. But are the tanker trucks able to get down and re-supply?”

Surreal images of the Gulf of Mexico shoreline significantly receding went viral online, as the top of Irma pushed out the tide along the west coast.

Gas was still in short supply on Tuesday in the area, leaving many to remain stranded at home. The short supply of fuel also put a strain on fuel rations for generators at residents’ homes.

Some residents were already getting power back by early Monday.

The Levy County Emergency Management public information lines can be reached at 352-486-5155 or 352-486-5576.