East County avoids major damage from Hurricane Irma
It was getting late on the night of Sept. 10, and Maureen and Richard Curtis knew Hurricane Irma was about to knock on the door of their Fourth Plaza East home in Mill Creek.
The wind was intensifying, and the couple started to wonder if they had made the right decision.
Their next-door neighbor, William Duda, had left earlier on that Sunday when Manatee County opened Lakewood Ranch High School as a shelter. They thought about going, but they didn't.
"I worked so hard boarding up everything," Richard Curtis said.
Irma didn't seem to care. The former Category 5 hurricane, which had made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4, was still packing power as it tore through Naples and headed directly north. It was losing power over land, but not enough.
By 10 p.m., wind gusts greater than 50 miles per hour were howling through East County as the eye of Irma made its way northward. By 11 p.m., it was 40 miles east of Sarasota and Manatee counties as a Category 2, and although its shift had spared the area a direct hit, Mill Creek was getting pounded with bands of wind and rain.
Maureen Curtis said the sounds of the relentless attack in their backyard became "scary."
Her face became taut as she thought back to that time during the night when she wondered whether Irma was simply going to blow them away.
"It was hard to breathe," she said.
In front of their home, Maureen's favorite oak tree, its root system turned into mush by a steady rain, pulled out of the ground, landing across their yard but sparing the house. Other trees began falling as well.
It was going to be a long night.
By morning, though, Richard Curtis was in his yard doing clean-up work. Despite the loss of their oak, damage was minimal, much like the rest of East County had experienced.
If another Irma heads his way, Richard Curtis said he is heading for a shelter.
"I think so," he said, looking at his neighbors doing clean-up along his street. "It could have been a pretty bad situation."
Maureen joined her husband, giving him a hug. They were smiling.
"We've been blessed," she said.
Although Irma had left a combined 133,000 Manatee County customers of Florida Power and Light and Peace River without power, damaged homes and caused minor flooding, the recurring theme was the same. It could have been much worse.
Next door to the Curtis family, Duda was standing in the street as one of his neighbors, Brian Braun, was cutting through a fallen tree that had blocked Duda's driveway.
"That's the only tree that fell (on his property)," Duda said. "I should have taken down that other tree that has grown over the house."
That one, however, still stands.
In retrospect, Duda said he was glad he went to a shelter. "Just for the peace of mind," he said. "The way they were talking about Irma, I was worried."
Although Irma scattered tree limbs, palm fronds and anything else not tied down, all over East County, most neighborhoods avoided serious damage.
The older section of Mill Creek, along Second and Third avenues, was hit harder than most.
Dave Daily, who lives on Second Avenue, had a tree collapse on his home.
"It could have been worse," he said. "We lost six feet of our overhang, but there are two bedrooms back there, and I went up in the attic and there was no damage. I was extremely lucky."
Late night on Sept. 10 and early morning Sept. 11, luck was center stage in East County. While Daily was fortunate, Jim and Jackie Sleter probably wish they hadn't gone to Daily's home to be in a safer place. The same tree that had caused only minor damage to Daily's home, crushed their Ford.
Inside the home the night before, as the winds whipped against the walls, Daily heard a loud rumble. "It sounded like thunder with no flash," he said. "My wife, Rhona, knew better. 'No,' she said. 'That's a tree.' She knew."
As Daily told the story, a group of his neighbors cut up the fallen tree and removed debris from his property. Among them was Mill Creek's Bob Weronik, who was hauling away huge pieces of tree trunk.
"My wife told me I didn't need to buy a Kioti tractor," he said, laughing.
After he finished at Daily's home, he would be off, with his Kioti, to help others in the neighborhood.
"All our neighbors are pitching in to help," Daily said. "It's what you do during these times."
A few streets over, Mill Creek's Brian Lewis was cutting up a tree that had fallen on his property. "It's just so wet out here," he said. "The roots came right out."
But not without the help of some heavy wind.
"A deputy told me that maybe we had a mini tornado," Lewis said.
While there were no reports of tornadoes in the area, it seemed possible in Mill Creek and along State Road 64 where a stretch of the roadway, about a quarter mile east of the Lakewood Ranch Boulevard intersection, was littered with fallen trees.
Fortunately, those trees all fell toward the roadway on the south, instead of toward houses on the north side of the trees.
All over Lakewood Ranch, residents were feeling fortunate that falling trees avoided their homes.
Corrie and Alex Moor left their home in Summerfield to stay with family in Bridgewater, and when they returned home on Monday morning, they found a huge tree in their driveway.
"But we had no damage to our house," Corrie Moor said. "Everything is just fine."
The Moors stood alongside the tree with neighbors Haydon and Glenis Thomas and Bruce Sengstaken, all who live on Beeflower Lane. They were almost in a state of celebration, having survived Irma.
Sengstaken, laughing, said he was expecting much worse.
"If this was a Category 5," he said, "there wouldn't be anything left of us."