WEST ORANGE TIMES & OBSERVER STAFF
Pastor Rusty Belcher was already on his way to his church Friday, Oct. 7, when he was notified that Hurricane Matthew had caused some damage to the campus. What he saw when he arrived at the First United Methodist Church of Winter Garden was actually a miracle.
Yes, the 50-something-year-old water oak with the beautiful canopy that graced the front lawn of the campus was split in two. But, this felled giant tree had completely missed the crown jewel of the sanctuary, the 70-year-old stained-glass window. There was minimal damage to the eave above the sanctuary’s southwest entrance.
Immediately, city of Winter Garden crews were there to remove the tree half blocking Lakeview Avenue, and church members and a tree service were on site to assess damage and remove the tree away from the building.
Downed trees appears to be the worst damage from the hurricane, which reached the eastern coast of Florida early Friday morning, Oct. 7.
Winter Garden was spared from the worst damage, with much less debris and damage than the city saw from Hurricane Charley in 2004.
“Winter Garden, we are blessed,” said Mayor John Rees. “I’ll put it that way. We had a few trees down, a couple of neighborhoods — a few people without electricity for a short time period, but nothing major that I know about.”
City crews began going around the city early afternoon Friday to assess the situation and clean up any debris they found.
Rees did not hear of any structural damage caused by the trees that fell.
In Ocoee, the only city employees working Friday were emergency personnel; employees in the Utilities, Public Works and Parks and Recreation departments worked Saturday to aid in cleanup and to handle any issues that arose.
“I was not made aware of any significant damage within the city,” Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson said. “There were trees down, some power outage and lots of yard debris. We were very lucky.”
Both Winter Garden and Ocoee had sandbags available for residents.
Windermere fared well, too.
“We had no significant damage, and we were quite fortunate,” Windermere Mayor Gary Bruhn said. “We lost a handful of trees, but our emergency tree removal people were able to respond immediately and keep our roads open. We did have some power outages in parts of our town, but everyone was back up by late that evening.”
Public Works personnel were on the job Saturday to repair washouts and remove debris. Windermere Land and Tree had extra equipment staged in town to remove any trees blocking roadways, and the town made sure all the storm water systems were clear and functioning.
“We have an issue that most municipalities don't have, and that is the state of our police department and offices,” Bruhn said. “Staff had to cover or remove electronic devices should our roofs leak or the building be damaged. We also had to remove our Police Command Center to the Ocoee Police Department because of the high winds and the need for our officers to be in a safer building.”
The Windermere Police Department held and attended several meetings to prepare in the days preceding the storm.
Oakland’s damage included a large tree that fell on the west end of Oakland Avenue, downed power lines and significant power outage for most of Friday.
Public Works Director Mike Parker said the water system operated on generator power for nearly 17 hours and no customers were without water service during the storm.
The town secured various contractors prior to the storm for debris removal and other support services.
“All publicly owned drainage facilities performed as expected, and other than construction site erosion and minor ponding of water along roadways and on private properties, there were no instances of flood damage,” Parker said.
Mayor Kathy Stark said a generator at a home on Tubb Street caught fire and spread to a nearby shed and tree. The shed was completely destroyed, and the tree was scorched.
“In preparation of the storm, Public Works ensured that all outdoor areas were secured and all potentially needed equipment was in working order and available,” Stark said. “We posted information on assistance from Duke Energy, water emergencies, garbage pickup etc. on our website and around town for the residents. After that we had round-the-clock first responders for Police and Public Works and of course Orange County Fire here in town. We stayed in touch with the Orange County EOC for any issues that we need assistance with.”
The Oakland Nature Preserve did not escape without some damage. While no animals were harmed and there was no extensive damage, the preserve did have some fallen trees, a few of which damaged the boardwalk. A photo of the damage shows a fallen tree, which smashed some of the railings, lying across the boardwalk.
“(Hurricane Matthew) left his mark here, which means our boardwalk will be out of commission for a bit while we make repairs,” a post on ONP’s Instagram account stated. “But that's about the extent of it, and all our animals seem to be in good shape, so we're not stressing too much.”
Orange County District 1 Commissioner S. Scott Boyd said he had been in contact with the fire rescue chief frequently throughout the duration of the storm and has not heard of any significant damage to the West Orange area.
“I would say that Mayor (Teresa) Jacobs and the staff and our public personnel have done a really good job,” Boyd said. “I think we were spared by the storm; inching its way over to the coast would have been more of an impact. It’s evident seeing as you get further east in the county there’s a bit more debris but for the most part everything is good. I think we had 1,400 residents that were in the (Orange County) shelters, some traffic lights out and power outages were going on, but for the most part all of that got done.
“Everything on the west side for the most part is fine,” he said. “There might be some down trees here and there, but for the most part fire rescue and public works jumped out there. We’re pretty lucky.”
On Sunday, Oct. 9, more than 150 volunteers from the Windermere and Winter Garden congregations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints aided residents in Volusia and Flagler counties. Teams took generators, chainsaws and other equipment to neighborhoods and spent the day clearing storm debris from yards and homes.
Among the volunteers was Daniel Bowers, of Horizon West.
"We've got the will and we just want to help anybody," he said. "Nobody wants to have no power, no water, your roof's leaking and you don't know what's going to happen, and it gives people peace of mind and that's why we're out here doing it."
Ana Gibbs, spokeswoman for Duke Energy, said that of the areas in Florida that the company serves, Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties were the hardest hit by the hurricane.
Duke Energy serves approximately 350,000 customers in Orange County alone. Of these, about 86,000 reported power outages. Gibbs said that all power in the county was restored by midnight on Sunday, Oct. 9, thanks to the help of more than 3,000 utility workers doing repair work around the clock. Crews as far away as the Midwest region of the country came in to provide assistance.
“They actually began before the storm hit,” Gibbs said. “We stage them in areas that are safe until the storm comes, and then they respond once the outages are being reported (after the storm). We keep all our personnel and supplies just outside the projected area, and as soon as it safe everyone moves in.”
Following the storm, OneBlood was in need of donations of O negative, platelets and AB plasma. For a list of OneBlood Donor Centers and Big Red Bus blood drive locations, visit oneblood.org.
Classes were cancelled Thursday and Friday for students in Orange County Public Schools. Makeup days are scheduled for Friday, Oct. 28, and Friday, April 28. Homecoming and other school-related events had to be either cancelled or rescheduled.
Contact Amy Quesinberry Rhode at [email protected], Danielle Hendrix at [email protected], Gabby Baquero at [email protected] or Jennifer Nesslar at [email protected]