Osceola County lends helping hand after Hurricane Michael

Kissimmee Utility Authority lineman, who went to the Panhandle to help with Hurricane Michael storm restoration, took several photos of the damage.

St. Cloud resident Laurie Johnson admitted there wasn’t much to do Wednesday afternoon as she watched news coverage of Category 4 Hurricane Michael barrel toward her hometown of Tallahassee.

“It’s disconcerting to watch it play out,” Johnson said from her Osceola County home around 2:30 p.m., shortly after the monster storm began making landfall in the Panhandle. “It’s so huge, it’s hard to imagine how bad the damage will be.”

Johnson was thankful that her son, Jordan – a Florida State University sophomore - was already back home Monday night after the school closed its campus and canceled classes until at least Friday.

Jordan’s grandmother joined him on the trip to Central Florida. Johnson said her mother has owned a home in Tallahassee since 1981 and has never evacuated for a hurricane before.

But the family could tell this storm was going to be different, Johnson said.

“We’re worried about the infrastructure up there, about what’s going to be left once the hurricane is over and everyone goes back,” she said. “My mom is really worried. It’s a lot to think about.”

Kissimmee hotels offer discounts to evacuees

More than 375,000 people had fallen under voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders before Michael hit.

As the Panhandle braced for the storm, Central Florida hotels extended free stays and discounts to evacuees unable to stay with family or friends.

Magical Vacation Rentals, which owns over 250 properties in Osceola County, offered discounts to evacuees seeking shelter in Kissimmee beginning Monday afternoon.

“After we saw the effect Hurricane Irma had on this area, we wanted to help people out when the next big storm came,” said Magical Vacation Homes’ Director of Online Marketing Alex Gonzales.

Michael makes landfall

The storm made landfall near Mexico Beach just before 2 p.m. Wednesday and was not downgraded to a tropical storm until midnight. By Thursday morning, two causalities had already been reported.

From the beginning, Michael was unusual, especially in the final month of hurricane season. It intensified quickly and fed off the Gulf of Mexico’s unseasonably warm waters as it moved from the coast of the Yucatan to the Gulf.

Based on its internal barometric pressure, Michael was the third-most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland. The Category 4 storm had the fourth-strongest winds at landfall since record keeping began in 1851, topping other recent deadly storms like Hurricane Katrina (2005) in pressure and Hurricane Charley (2004) in wind speed.

There were 388,160 homes and businesses across the Panhandle and Big Bend regions without power by Wednesday evening, according to the state, and early reports estimate that many will be without electricity for days or even weeks.

First responders, KUA arrive to help

A collection of first responders and fire personnel from Osceola County, Kissimmee, St. Cloud and Ocoee were deployed to offer aid to the Panhandle after the hurricane. The strike team, which included a rescue unit complete with ambulances and a battalion chief, were assigned to assist Panama City beginning at midnight heading into Thursday morning.

In anticipation of the storm, Kissimmee Utility Authority deployed supplies, 10 linemen and a convoy of vehicles to Tallahassee Tuesday to help get the lights back on after the storm.

By 4:45 p.m. Wednesday, 3,643 outages were affecting 54,975 customers in Florida’s capital, according to the City of Tallahassee outage map.

By 9 p.m. Wednesday, KUA’s Twitter account posted photos taken by the linemen depicting images of giant fallen trees, crushed power lines and impassable roadways.

Dealing with the aftermath

When the sun rose in northern Florida Thursday morning, it was clear that KUA and first responders from Osceola County had their work cut out.

The full extent of the damage and other casualties is still uncertain. Gov. Rick Scott told CNN Thursday morning that two hospitals in Panama City were damaged in the storm and were “in the process of being closed down.”

Chris Gent, public information officer for KUA, said the utility company wouldn’t know how long it’s going take to repair damage to electrical infrastructure until a system-wide assessment was completed. Once they have an idea on what needs to be repaired or replaced, they assign crews and secure materials, he said.

“Tallahassee has a significant tree canopy so that always slows restoration,” Gent said. “Roads will need to be cleared before crews can get trucks into the affected areas.”