Nearly a week after Hurricane Irma barreled through Florida, cities in the central part of the state were starting to bounce back, but the damage the storm wrought was in evidence everywhere we ventured.
As we walked to and from the Winter Garden farmer's market the Saturday morning after Irma came to visit in the wee hours the previous weekend, we were surprised to hear the sounds of generators in the downtown residential neighborhoods. There are many large, old trees in this older part of town, predominantly Live Oaks, and all had not fared so well. Nor had the power lines underneath them.
Although many parts of town had the power restored, and some never lost it (like our campground!), there were still many folks without electricity during this hot and muggy time. This house in particular took a bad hit from a large tree in the yard. Their front door (not pictured) was standing wide open, and a generator was running.
While most of the lovely old trees were still standing, there were brush piles up and down every single street.
As I write this two full Saturdays later, many of these streets are still lined with brush, as the city hasn't been able to pick up all the debris despite lots of work -- we've seen numerous trucks hauling yard waste all over town everywhere we've been. And some of the debris piles continue to grow as individuals clean up their yards, front and back.
After two days of driving back from our evacuation spot in Mississippi, we were anxious to get back out on the bike trail. Barry checked out the eastern portion of the West Orange Trail a day ahead of me and found much of it closed due to debris. Fortunately, we could still ride west towards Clermont and Groveland, as these trail segments had been cleared off and debris pushed to the side.
Here's some of the damage we saw in Groveland, which is pretty rural and has some huge trees. There were some massive specimens down near the bike path.
Part of the bike path was washed out but passable.
A couple of days later, we decided to venture east again to see if more of the West Orange Trail was now open. Fortunately, it was. The only blockage was where the Ocoee Golf Club's high chain-link fence had blown off onto the path. Just past the orange cones in the photo below, we had to ride onto the grass a bit to go around it, but by the following day, the fence had been neatly rolled up and moved off the path.
There is still plenty of debris on either side of the trail in the wooded sections, and unfortunately less shade than before with so many branches and some trees down, but the trail itself has been swept off of branches and leaves so is very rideable. I expect cleaning the sides of the trail is a low priority for city and county workers given that city streets are still equally piled with debris.
The massive tree below fell right in front of Chapin Station, one of the popular public parks and rest stops along the West Orange Trail. As of this writing, this has not been cleaned up. I think the building (and most importantly for cyclists, the rest rooms!) is probably open, but you have to approach from the parking lot side rather than trailside.
Here in western Orange County, the power is now back on everywhere, the generators have been put away, and most people's lives are pretty much back to normal. But seeing the impacts Hurricane Irma had on central Florida reminds us how other parts of the state, like the Keys and southwestern coastline, were even harder hit and are likely recovering at a slower pace. We were lucky here in central Florida by comparison.
Finally, our thoughts now are with Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, hit so hard by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and areas of Mexico affected by the terrible earthquakes. We are feeling very, very fortunate right now to be contending only with a bit less shade on the bike paths.
After two days on the road from our "hurricane hole" in Mississippi, we made our way back to Winter Garden, unsure exactly what we'd find. The eye of Hurricane Irma passed very close to if not directly over this area, but the national news we'd been watching focused more on the coastal areas and the Keys than on Orlando, so we didn't really know what to expect. We knew that our campground had power (in fact, they never lost it, amazingly!) but that cleanup efforts were underway.
As we discovered after getting settled back into our site and taking a look around, some sites were undisturbed, but there was certainly visible damage around the campground. The rigs that backed up to large trees on the perimeter fared worse. Many of the trees were just fine, and one of the ones that fell was behind a pond and only damaged the fence, but then there was this very unfortunate fifth wheel.
We don't know the folks who own this rig nor why they didn't bring their slide-outs in and move to an open site before evacuating (which they did, thankfully), but it appears that the camper sustained serious damage. Some cleanup work has started on this site, but whether the trailer is a total loss or not, we don't know.
Below is another big tree that fell during the storm. It whacked the corner of the roof on one of the park model homes and did some damage.
Here's the tree that was uprooted and fell over the fence behind one of the ponds.
There was (and still is) a huge brush pile in the big field that buffers the campsites from the road. This pile has grown since I took these photos as the campground maintenance staff continues to add to it while cleaning up.
And the familiar campground sign is no more, courtesy of Irma.
Our site, being treeless, was unharmed.
We probably could have stayed put and fared just fine, but 100+ mph wind gusts in the wee hours would have been terrifying in an RV, so I am really, really glad we evacuated.
We both agreed that it was nice to have a change of pace, to ride our bikes in a different area, and to watch the storm on the Weather Channel from the safety of southern Mississippi, instead of having a front-row seat!
In our next post, we'll share some more storm damage photos from around town and the bike paths.
After spending 7 nights away from our "home" (for now) campground in Florida waiting out Hurricane Irma, it was time to assess whether we could leave Mississippi and start making our way back. Two websites we found extremely helpful in making that decision were Florida 511 and Gasbuddy.
Florida 511 gives real-time information on highways in the state, including congestion, incidents such as crashes and disabled vehicles, and also allows clicking on numerous traffic cameras to see for yourself what is going on out there. We found this site while on the road evacuating Florida and were able to watch for upcoming road conditions while we traveled to see if we'd need to find alternate routes due to traffic hotspots. Then for several days before we left our hurricane hole in Mississippi, we checked several times a day to see how Interstates 10 east and 75 south were faring, as those were our planned route back.
The first couple of days after Irma cut a swath through the entire state of Florida, I-75 south looked really jammed up (red) from everyone trying to return home. The storm hit the northern part of Florida in the wee hours of Monday morning, and by Wednesday, I-75 was starting to look better, so this helped confirm our decision to leave on Thursday morning. We wouldn't hit I-75 until Friday morning, allowing even more time for traffic to clear out.
Gasbuddy was also helpful since we'd heard about numerous gas stations running out of fuel -- or not having the electricity to pump it -- in the days immediately before and after the hurricane. After Irma, Gasbuddy put up a special tracking site with this information. By Wednesday, it appeared that gas was getting delivered again, although supplies were much better along the interstates than on the back roads. There were still many stations that reported being out of fuel (especially diesel) or electricity, but just as many did have it, so we felt comfortable in making our getaway. Pearl is gas-powered, so we wouldn't need the scarcer diesel.
The night before we left, not knowing exactly how far we'd get, I made a list of about six campgrounds along I-10 that would be possibilities for our one-night stay on the road. We didn't want to get reservations as that would lock us into driving a certain amount of miles, and what if roads were much worse (or better) than we anticipated? We just don't like to be locked in if we can help it. One campground that looked to be in about the right spot didn't even take reservations, so we put that one at the top of our "preferred" list.
As it turned out, although traffic was steady and heavy at times on I-10, we did make it to that campground, although it was a bit longer day than we prefer, just over 400 miles total (we prefer 200!), and we lost an hour when we crossed from central time to eastern time. But it was still light, and the campground had a couple of pull-through sites available when we arrived.
But all was not as expected in our full-hookup site. Before Barry even got the levelers down, a woman from a nearby site came by to tell us that the campground didn't have power or water due to the hurricane. A tree had taken down the power lines during the storm three days earlier. Oops! That was something we hadn't anticipated in Florida's panhandle.
We briefly considered moving on to the next campground on our list, but Barry was very tired of driving at that point, so even though we were a bit rusty at it as we've had hookups for months, we knew we could dry camp/boondock in a pinch. Pearl has a generator, after all, and we have paper plates and cups as backup. Our only issue was not having fresh water in Pearl's water tank as we'd expected to have a water hookup, but we had enough drinking water for one night and could just take sponge baths during our short stay. It was decided: We were staying put.
A Camper's World is nothing fancy, but the location is super convenient, right off I-10 near Lamont (no, I hadn't heard of it either!). It is a smaller campground (29-31 sites, depending on which source you read) and offers full hookup, 50-amp pull-through sites, as well as 30-amp back-in sites. There's a pool, clubhouse, and laundry room, none of which we checked out. Check-in is on the honor system as there is no host on site. Campsites are $30/night for Good Sam members, though that too is on the honor system, a few dollars more if you're not a member (we are). The roads in the campground are sand and sites are grass. Kinda basic, but fine for a night.
We didn't bother trying our satellite dish since we were back in the trees, but clearer sites nearer the interstate would be able to get a signal (along with more road noise). We did pick up quite a few over-the-air TV stations with our antenna, and we had a strong Verizon 4G LTE signal.
Some of the campers here had been here through the hurricane, while others were in the process of heading home, as we were. The woman who told us about the power being out said she lived in the campground, so I am sure she was more than ready to have the power and water back!
After pulling out our paper plates and getting settled in, we heard a rumble of traffic on the road in and had a look out.
What to our wondering eyes would appear but the beautiful site of several Duke Energy trucks rolling up. Exactly who you want to see at a time like this!
We could tell that folks who had been there longer than us were excited, as they gathered on one of the site's patios to watch the workers. Seemed like the perfect time for a happy hour!
Within an hour, we had power and water back on! We knew the exact moment that happened as we saw and heard the other campers dancing and yelling -- and one of them came by to let us know. We wouldn't be dry camping after all!
Other than that, our trip back was pretty uneventful. Our second day on the road was shorter (just over 200 miles), and I-75 south was not too bad in the morning, though there were plenty of folks heading south, including lots of work trucks to help with hurricane damage recovery. We had no problem getting gas either day. We were back in Winter Garden in time for a late lunch.
In our next post we'll share what we saw when we returned to Winter Garden, so stay tuned!
Emily & Barry
We're a long-married, early-retired couple who are currently traveling as nomads with no fixed home base. After years of living in North Carolina (Emily's home state), we spent 18 months living oceanfront on Ambergris Caye, Belize, a year road-tripping the US in a Honda CR-V, a year in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and are now roaming North America in our 32' motorhome, Pearl, following warm weather whenever possible.
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