A friend, shortly before Hurricane Irma hit, told me, “I once knew a woman named Irma, and when I heard the name, I started boarding and hoarding.”
I feel pretty awful about folks who by chance happened to have that name. It's not a common one. But I’d also wager a bunch that not many of the people born in the next year will carry that name, at least not those from Florida families.
Irma ranged from inconvenient to deadly, depending on where you were, and how you prepared. Unfortunately, it also sometimes depended on how well you were able to take care of yourself: In Miami, 120 people were abandoned in a nursing home; all were traumatized, many were injured, and at least eight have died at this writing. Of what? Heat toxicity. Not the winds, not the rains nor floods, and not from flying debris. From the heat.
Irma hit us in what is almost always the hottest month of the year. September is more humid, hotter and can be just plain nasty. So many need to be thanked for all they have done, but power is instrumental. Lakeland Electric deserves at least first mention. As a hometown crew, literally, the folks at the utility have done an absolutely amazing job at getting Lakeland up and running. The key is almost all of them actually live here.
In support of this effort, and a myriad of other tasks, Lakeland city workers have thrown work schedules to the winds and swarmed forward with chainsaws, clearing streets, chopping up and removing downed trees, clearing ground so emergency vehicles and first responders — and just plain folks, checking on others — can get around. Theirs has been a display of efficiency and professionalism “big” cities could not hope to match. Why the incredible show of energy, the acts above and beyond the call of duty? This is their town.
Bad guys are always a problem, and will slip through the cracks in the best of circumstances. But really bad types will always take advantage of situations like Irma, when we are at our lowest ebb and paying the least attention. Fortunately, law enforcement officers in Polk County were there with all eyes out when ours were otherwise occupied. There’s been no widespread looting, no massive chaos or any of the attendant screwiness that so often accompanies colossal disaster dislocations. They have outdone themselves in everything from traffic control and emergency evacuations to simply keeping order and making our streets safe. Kudos, as always, to our people in blue, but especially in times like these. Extra hours and even days? No problem. Cold coffee, missed meals? No problem. Their families are here, too.
Information is prime during a crisis of any sort, but it may be even harder to come by when the chips are truly way down, as they have been for Floridians during Irma. Ledger reporters went to the wall to be sure that we all knew what we needed to know, and what we most wanted to know, about our community during these times. WFLA (channel 8), Bay News 9 and WTSP (channel 10) were on air from start to clean-up, and did an astonishing job of keeping us truly informed.
I had a chance to speak with Grady Trimble, WTSP’s county reporter, when he was on campus following our clean-up efforts. “We’ve been on 12 hours and off 12 hours for days,” he told me, “but it has to be done — someone has to cover it all.”
The “all” Grady talked about was not horror stories about what happens when you touch a downed line. They were local stories about neighbors helping neighbors, who had needs and who was doing well. They were helpful, uplifting pieces. He and his colleagues deserve our thanks for completely eclipsing the hysterical “national news” nitwits who screamed gloom and doom and carefully avoided anything useful throughout the entire crisis.
I can remember laughing out loud at one of these ridiculous fools from the “national press,” strung on the end of a tether, flailing around in the water, trying to get the story — then switched permanently back to the local channels. At least as long as the power held. Then it was local radio, on batteries, when our stations could get on the air.
The next time we hold a hurricane, let's not invite CNN. They don’t live here and would not know where to start. Our reporters do.
Last, but never least, were the (un)common people of Lakeland and Polk County: armies of unofficial clean-up crews, neighbors reaching out to neighbors, water bottles passed to workers. The spirit of Lakeland is strong. The real reason that official efforts and unofficial efforts have been working so well against the odds is that we are all Lakelanders. That actually means something fine. Lakeland will survive, revive and thrive.
R. Bruce Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Dr. Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay Jr. Endowed Chair in American History, Government, and Civics at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.