Hurricane Irma was a most unwelcome guest as it roared over Immokalee, Big Cypress, Hollywood, Brighton and the rest of the state Sept. 10-11. It was the first direct hit from a major hurricane to Florida since Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and the first Category 4 to hit since Hurricane Charley in 2004.
Even before the massive storm made landfall in Cudjoe Key with Category 4 strength, Irma made history as it barreled through the Caribbean as a Category 5 storm with maximum winds of 185 mph. It remained a hurricane for more than 11 days, the most since Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Its accumulated energy, as measured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was more than the first eight named Atlantic hurricanes this season combined, from Arlene to Harvey.
The hurricane measured more than 400 miles across and every Seminole reservation was in the storm’s cross hairs.
Immokalee bore the brunt of the storm with winds of approximately 128 mph. About 37 Tribal members took refuge in the community center, which was converted into a shelter, and remained
safe and sound despite the force of the hurricane which arrived as a category 3.
The damage on the reservation was limited to downed trees and fences, tilted utility poles, some damaged roofs and sheds and flooding.
“Considering the magnitude that was predicted to come, we had minimum damage,” said Immokalee Council Project Manager Raymond Garza. “I’ll take that every day. No roofs were gone, even the older houses held up.”
During the havoc of the storm, Seminole Police Department and Fire Rescue coordinated with the Big Cypress Emergency Operations Center, the casino, Building and Grounds and Housing departments. The Immokalee casino housed 157 people during the storm, mostly employees and their families plus a few guests.
“Immokalee had it the worst of the reservations, but the damage is mostly cosmetic,” said SPD Sgt. Michele Harbin. “We worked well as a command center. A bunch of people came together, put our best effort forward and worked hand in hand to make this a smooth transition.”
Harbin said communications between the departments was the key to their success. When the cell and landline telephones went down, they used SPD radios on repeaters to communicate.
As the wind and rain whipped through Immokalee, which was visible to all through the community center’s hurricane impact resistant windows, SPD officers did their best to keep spirits up. They played cards and games with the children, made popcorn and generally kept everyone calm.
“It was a smooth operation and everyone was in good spirits,” said Immokalee Fire Rescue Battalion Commander Robert Curtis. “We provided service throughout. We were very lucky.”
Prior to the storm, Fire Rescue evacuated residents from the reservation’s trailer homes and transported them to the safety of the shelter, which was still operational on Sept. 12 and expected to remain so until power is restored.
The generators were fueled up and the shelter had enough food and supplies to last for a few weeks. The shelter fed about 80 Tribal members three meals a day and continued to provide a cool shelter until the entire reservation regained electricity. Lawn companies began clearing debris from clients’ yards the day after the hurricane and Fire Rescue and SPD went house to house to check on residents.
Most homes on the reservation have generators; the majority run on propane but some use diesel fuel. A generator can run an entire house, but the fuel will last only about three or four days depending on how many appliances are used. Fuel was in high demand, but the EOC secured enough for all who needed it, Harbin said.
Deloris Alvarez’s Immokalee home lost power and a cooking chickee but her Big Cypress trailer survived the storm intact, save for a few downed trees, and she believes everyone got lucky.
Big Cypress took a hit by Hurricane Irma, but it wasn’t as severe as in Immokalee. Most of the damage on the reservation was superficial with downed trees, chickees and flooding being the most common signs of the storm’s wrath. Downed power poles on County Roads 846 and 835 leading to the reservation were the most impactful, since they left the reservation with no electricity.
The BC senior center was converted into a shelter and more than 60 people made it their home as Hurricane Irma rumbled through.
“When the hurricane came, we had a circle prayer,” said BC Council special assistant Brian Billie. “Kids were around, the Boys and Girls Club brought games and kept them busy and some firemen had karaoke. It was a good time.”
The kids spent their time in the larger room as the seniors took shelter in the smaller, and much quieter, ceramics room. About 200 people were fed and a few stayed until the power was restored to the reservation.
President Mitchell Cypress and his brother David Cypress had lunch together Sept. 12 and reminisced about storms they experienced as kids. They remembered hanging onto the chickee poles during the bad ones. But this day most of the talk was about Irma.
“It was windy and rainy and stuff was flying around,” said President Cypress. “I peeked out and the front door flew open and threw me outside. I learned my lesson not to open a door when the wind is blowing during a hurricane.”
His house was undamaged, but the front door was off its hinges so President Cypress backed his car up to it to keep it closed for the duration of the storm.
“Nothing dramatic happened to me,” added David Cypress with a grin. “A couple of trees are down, but there was no structural damage.”
Irma proved to be nothing more than an adventure for the eight people hunkered down at Cathy Cypress’s BC home, including five of her children who came to stay from Broward County. The home was well protected with impact resistant windows.
“We did pretty well,” Cypress said. “We had a lot of rain and wind, but no flooding. The kids were fascinated by what was happening outside.”
Albert Graham and his children Lucee Cypress, 10, and Herbert Cypress, 6, stayed in the shelter during the hurricane. Their home had no power and the generator was too small to power up the air conditioning. The kids were happily entertained by their electronic gadgets; Lucee listened to music and Herbert played games on his iPad.
“My kids can’t be sleeping in the heat,” Graham said. “As long as they are content, I’m happy.”
Over at Billie Swamp Safari, the animals were safe and secure inside buildings but the road leading to the attraction was flooded, the petting zoo lost its roof and there was damage to a couple of the dormitory chickees. As the flood waters receded, the animals were released
to their outside pens.
“We expected more damage to BC,” said Victor Marrero, Director of Risk Management. “We are blessed that it wasn’t as severe as we thought it would be. The reservation looks like it’s in pretty good shape.”
The risk management and fixed assets departments sent crews to every reservation to assess the damage. Marrero said every reservation had some damage and the department is in the process of doing appraisals and securing insurance estimates.
“Overall, we were very fortunate that we didn’t receive a direct impact and that as the storm came through, it diminished in strength,” Marrero said. “If there’s one thing I can say about the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the folks are resilient.”
The biggest issue a week after the storm in Big Cypress was lack of electricity. Although most of the 300 or so homes on the reservation have generators, residents have continued to take meals at the shelter. According to senior center site manager Nadine Bowers lunch is the busiest time.
“If someone’s generator goes out, they can come to the shelter,” said Arthur Bousquet, Fire Rescue District Chief. “We want to keep a nice cool place so no one gets heat stroke. As long as there is no electricity, the shelter will be open.”
In the days after the storm Fire Rescue and SPD distributed bags of ice and cases of water at the Herman Osceola Gym. A steady stream of cars, SUVs and ATVs drove up Sept. 12 for supplies given out by SPD community service aide Gordon Perna and Fire Rescue Lt. Oscar Castillo.
Castillo had been working without a break for five days and spent the hurricane in Immokalee, where he helped with the cooking.
“This is what we signed up for,” Castillo said. “We are here for the tough times. We’re here to remind the community they can rely on us.”
On Sept. 15, the Federal Emergency Management Agency partnered with the Tribe to distribute water, ice and non-perishable goods at the BC aviation hanger and the ball fields in Brighton. Military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), Red Cross comfort kits and tarps were piled high in the hanger and given to community members as they drove through the facility.
“The ice truck is my favorite place to be,” said fire inspector Meghan Grimsley as she worked in the 90 degree heat handing out ice and other supplies.
The Swamp Water Café at Billie Swamp Safari opened for business three days after the hurricane, said operations manager Haftu Kahsay.
“The generator went down during the storm and we had to throw away all the food, so we started again from scratch,” Kahsay said. “The menu is limited, but we wanted to make sure the community had something to eat.”
The café is ready for the community and employees, but not yet for a rush of tourists. Four days after the reopening the café had served 164 meals. Not bad considering Billie Swamp Safari remained closed to the public.
The boardwalk at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum was damaged in a few places, but the museum building and its art collections remained intact. Museum staff removed the art from walls and showcases and stored it safely in the museum’s bunker-like, climate controlled vault prior to the storm. It took 15 people to remove a massive six by 10 foot painting- painted by Noah Billie and titled “Seminole Warriors Observing U.S. Army Soldiers Marching”- from the wall by the back door leading to the boardwalk.
The generators never lost power during Hurricane Irma, so no art was lost.
“It was all hands on deck to de-install everything,” said Paul Backhouse, Director, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Office. “I’m very proud of them. The care of the collection is everything to us and we know how important it is to the Tribe.”
The museum has pieces on loan from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the Cherokee Nation, Tribal members and other institutions. Representatives from museums, historic preservation societies and even the Florida secretary of state contacted Backhouse to make sure all was well at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki.
After the storm, museum staff worked together to remove downed branches, trees and other debris from the parking lot, entrance and back of the building. Despite the hot and humid weather, spirits were high as the team worked together to clean up the grounds.
The art is safe, but Backhouse said the damaged boardwalk will take a huge effort and time to repair.
“But we will reopen it, it’s an important part of what we are,” he said.
Brighton also experienced the hurricane, but the damage was less extensive.
“It wasn’t too bad,” said Brighton Board Rep. Larry Howard. “Everybody pulled together and helped each other out. We are all OK.”
Downed trees were the most common damage around the reservation – including a couple of large uprooted trees at the front of the Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School – but the 4H show pavilion was completely destroyed.
“I’d be surprised if the building was able to be salvaged,” said Aaron Stam, federally recognized Tribal extension agent. “But it should have little impact on the show and sale as we are planning on hosting the event inside the Brighton Rodeo arena.”
According to Marrero, the building was appraised and declared a total loss. Risk management is waiting for approval for reconstruction.
Before the storm, plans for cattle were considered.
“Cattle are our first priority,” said Natural Resources department office manager Sheri Holmes. “In case of flooding there really isn’t a whole lot you can do with them. We have crews ready to assess the damage as soon as it is safe to do so.”
The cattle stayed in their pastures and fared well during the storm, none were physically injured. But Natural Resource director Alex Johns knows the consequences may not be felt for some time.
“The stress of the hurricane will possibly affect next year’s calf production,” he wrote in an email. “We may possibly have a higher than normal calf loss due to stress abortion from the hurricane, ants, mosquitos, etc.”
The Hollywood Reservation was smack in the middle of so many of the spaghetti models until Irma shifted slightly west, a move that spared the rez from major damage. Still, the storm brought
enough force to knock out power, cause a boil water advisory for the reservation and city, and bring down trees and fences.
A few days after the storm, Robert Kippenberger, similar to many of his neighbors, was still busy clearing piles of debris from his yard on the reservation. He remained in his house as Irma passed through.
“There were some major wind gusts that would happen every two, three minutes where it sounded like a jet, just howling through the trees,” he said. “Between the lulls, I went outside and a couple of times I got caught in big gusts where the trees branches sounded like they exploded, boom like a bomb, and that scared me so I went back inside.”
Despite losing power at about 3 a.m. on the morning of the storm, Kippenberger said he and his property fared well.
“Overall, I survived. My house is intact. No roof damage; just a lot of tree damage,” he said.
The storm knocked over a pole and some palm trees at the Betty Mae Jumper Health Complex and tore apart an awning at the Chickee Baptist Church.
The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino encountered mostly landscape damage, including a few large trees that were uprooted in the front of the property along U.S. 441. Further south on the road, the Hollywood Trading Post’s sign was bent and shattered.
For days before, during and after the storm, motorists formed lengthy lines along 441 to get gas at the Trading Post. Seminole Police Officers stationed at the pumps maintained orderly conduct.
Police and Fire Rescue provided assistance at the Senior Center, which served as a shelter, as well as at locations where free ice and water were distributed.
Members of the We Do Recovery program played a big role in storm preparations and the aftermath. They brought dozens of cases of bottled water to the Senior Center. They were also quick to lend a hand in making repairs, including fixing a damaged chickee in the backyard of Lawrence Osceola’s home.
Though it brought hurricane winds to the reservation, Irma’s wrath didn’t appear to significantly impact the historic Council Oak tree.
“I was anxious about this. Whew!” wrote one visitor on the Tribune’s Facebook page.