While Southwest Florida took the punishing brunt of Hurricane Ian’s fury, Lakeland fared much better. There were no lives lost in Lakeland or Polk County, although wind gusts of at least 78 miles per hour blew down trees throughout the city and left about 63,000 people without electricity. A National Weather Service meteorologist in the agency’s Ruskin office said wind speeds could have been higher, but their automated station’s anemometer in Lakeland sustained damage during the storm.
“I think this is much worse than Irma,” Charles Lee, 59, said about the 2017 hurricane that skirted Lakeland. He and his family have a home on Success Avenue. “The winds were sustained longer and obviously it started yesterday afternoon. Power went out around the same time, but there was much more debris down.”
Lee, his family and his neighbors, Geoff and Lisa Gardner, were all working along the sidewalk together to clean up downed limbs and debris. He was hoping for a restoration of electricity soon.
“Last time it was a week; let’s hope this time it’s just a couple of days – that would be great for everybody … a couple of hours would be fantastic,” Lee said. “But by the grace of God, everybody’s helping everybody out. “It just shows you, there’s a lot a lot of good in people. Much more good in the world than bad.”
Geoff Gardner said he agreed with his neighbor that this was worse, adding that he lost his chimney. Both men heard it being ripped off and then making its way down the driveway.
At Carlton Arms North off of U.S. 98, multiple trees lining the only road in or out of the sprawling apartment complex fell, with a large oak tree blocking the street just after 8 p.m. Wednesday. Lakeland Police Capt. Eric Harper arrived, but soon realized his chainsaw would not be able to cut through the large trunk and he called the city to notify them. By late morning Thursday, the tree had been cut up and moved out of the way.
At the intersection of U.S. 98 and Interstate 4, the stoplights remained inoperable, but many drivers did not heed the law that non-functioning traffic lights must be treated as a four-way stop sign. Several accidents happened throughout the city Thursday as drivers ran through the intersection.
Just north of that intersection Wednesday night, Harper found a silver Chevy sedan that was abandoned on the inside lane of U.S. 98. It had apparently been in an accident earlier in the evening and a tow truck company did not want to risk the high winds to retrieve the car. So the driver left the key in the ignition and left the car in the darkened roadway. Because the steering wheel wouldn’t turn, the car wouldn’t start and they could not put it in neutral and move it, Harper and Assistant Chief of Police Steven Pacheco, along with two road officers, decided the safest thing to do would be to place two reflective cones at the rear bumper to prevent an accident.
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At one Lakeland Police employee’s house along Hallam Drive, an oak tree toppled onto his new 2022 Chevy Silverado truck. Nearby, a tree took out powerlines, which were still lying across Hallam Drive Thursday morning.
Just after midnight Wednesday, clay tiles began blowing off the roof of the Lakeland Police Department downtown headquarters. In addition, the glass plaques of the Police Department’s Fallen Heroes Memorial wall along Massachusetts Avenue were ripped from the marble display and shattered.
Inside the station, dozens of police officers, communications employees and even top brass used cots given to the city by the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Hurricane Irma or brought in blow-up mattresses for a slumber party no one wanted to attend, sleeping as best they could in offices, conference rooms, cubicles and even closets throughout the building as they either waited for their shift to begin or were simply on hand in the case of a catastrophe.
Across Lake Mirror, flashing emergency lights could be seen on several floors of the Lakeland Electric building in the early hours of Thursday morning, with the storm setting off the fire alarm, according to Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia.
There were only two arrests during the storm – one for violation of pre-trial release conditions and another a suspect for firing a gun into a home. When Danny Street, 21, was brought to the police station for questioning about the shooting, he tried to escape from the arresting officer, only to find himself quickly surrounded by multiple officers, who were inside the station, waiting for the storm to intensify.
On Thursday, Lakeland Electric trucks, along with trucks from other companies, including Pike Corp., based in Mount Airy, N.C. One lineman from Kentucky, who pulled into the Tigertown parking lot, said it took him and his co-worker about 15 hours to reach Lakeland.
The city’s iconic swans, the descendants of gifts from Queen Elizabeth II in 1957, were seen preening beside Lake Mirror Thursday morning, waiting for the choppy water to settle. One of the oak trees in front of the Lakeland Public Library lost a massive limb, and several trees were knocked down along the grassy lakeshore and up Success Avenue — although The Lover’s Oak, on the corner of Lake Morton Drive and Success Avenue, survived another major storm.
City of Lakeland employees, including tables filled with linemen, ate lunch courtesy of the city at Fred’s Market on Harden Boulevard, which the city commandeered. City officials have a contract with Fred’s to feed its employees during emergencies.
At WONN/WPCV, one of Lakeland’s swan sculptures was toppled onto its side, but righted by Thursday afternoon.
Garcia said he could not have been prouder of his team.
“We were very lucky the storm took the course that it did,” Garcia said. “Our hearts go out to other Floridians that did not fare as well,” Garcia said. “I was extremely proud of the efforts of the men and women of the police department, as well as their counterparts throughout the city. Our team will come to work with other city departments until all services are restored.”
Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native. She can be reached at email@example.com or 863-272-9250.
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