Often forgotten in any discussion of our state is the inland areas, particularly in the southern part of the peninsula. “The Heartland” as it is dubbed took a beating from Irma, as it has previously from Hurricane Charley which hit in particular Arcadia with a vicious fury. Irma’s damage in the Heartland wasn’t as complete as Charley’s but was far extensive and expansive. On Saturday, I drove through Immokalee, LaBelle and points nearby. The damage from the storm was apparent but also was a spirit to rebuild. Structural damage to homes and businesses appeared for the most repairable while flood waters had been drained into the nearby Everglades and Big Cypress. But these areas which are isolated from coastal Florida still had limited supplies of gas, groceries, food and hardware needed to rebuild. I must state though I was surprised even shocked that most road signs were standing still.
The area is populated with lots migrant workers who work the fields and other odd jobs. Accommodations are never luxurious and while Collier and Hendry Counties have strong building codes by national standards, most structures aren’t built to the ideal Miami-Dade post-Andrew code which is part of the reason despite the havoc Irma caused in southeastern Florida, buildings in Miami-Dade and Broward were almost entirely intact after the storm. Immokalee’s buildings were damaged from what I observed but not fatally, and that’s a good thing.
Further up the state, power restoration remains spotty in areas like Sebring, Lake Placid and Frostproof per folks I have spoken to. Damage is extensive and the restoration of power sadly seems to be less of a priority than in more populated areas along the coast and places that attract tourists from outside Florida. Further north in Polk County, damage and flooding were extensive – according to The Lakeland Ledger over 18,000 structures were damaged in Irma.
For the Heartland, the growing scope of storms means being inland isn’t any longer a “safe” place to be during a Major Hurricane (not that it ever really was). Florida’s Heartland isn’t sexy for media and little emphasis has been put on the destruction caused – but with the scope of Irma, Florida’s vital agricultural sector is now under the gun for the coming winter season. That aspect of the Heartland’s Irma experience is almost certain to be covered in the near future. In the meantime, let’s remember for Florida, Irma wasn’t just a coastal or big metropolitan area event.
Infrastructure and transport routes need to be improved in the interior of the state. That’s something we’ll explore more in the near future.