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One strike and you're out: Lightning keeping fire crews, homeowners busy

SEBRING — Andrew Conyer had just taken some food out of his refrigerator for dinner when he heard a “boom” and felt energy through his feet.

He was glad to be wearing rubber-soled shoes — Crocs — because it was a lightning strike that came up through the concrete pad.

“I felt the electricity coming up through my feet,” Conyer said. “Our dog started yelping because it felt it, too. It was just like, ‘boom,’ there it was.”

He and his wife have lived off State Road 66 in the Orange Blossom area for 18 years with their own well and septic tank/drain field.

After the strike, Conyer went outside immediately to make sure the house wasn’t on fire.

When asked if he had experienced lightning strikes before, he said, “All the time.”

A couple of years ago, lightning struck a tree by their power pole, blowing the transformer. It has knocked out the phones four or five times over the years, Conyer said.

He said his church, Unity of Sebring on Orange Blossom Boulevard, has seen lightning strikes, as have people in the area, with things like lights getting turned on or off.

“This area that we’re in, I think a lot of it has to do with silica sand,” Conyer said.

Water content in the soil can be a factor, according to local officials. County Engineer Clinton Howerton Jr. has said he’s had to shut down landfill operations during lightning storms because the landfill is the highest earthen point in the county and it is full of moisture and methane.

Often, garbage collection has had to halt on heavy lightning storm days.

Monday night’s storm took out the Conyers’ internet and DirecTV and tripped half of their circuit breakers, Andrew Conyer said.

On average, he said, they see a lightning strike about once a year either at or near them, affecting their home somehow.

“We got a whole house generator, because [of] the electric going out here so much,” Conyer said. “A lot of it had to do with lightning strikes.”

That wasn’t a problem growing up in a small rural town in Indiana, he said. They would have tornadoes and ice storms, but rarely did he remember power failures.

Neighbors had lightning rods and lost their air-conditioner once, he said, but that wasn’t as big of a problem in a temperate climate.

To protect their home, the Conyers have surge protection on everything.

“We have everything grounded here,” Conyer said.

That’s the first, best defense for your home, said Highlands County Fire Rescue Chief and Public Safety Director Marc Bashoor.

Bashoor said it hasn’t been any busier than usual for lightning-related events, though social media has made it easier for his office and the public to send out photographs and word about incidents.

Florida is the fourth highest for the number of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes, behind Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, Bashoor said, but is the highest for lightning-related fatalities.

That’s especially true because lightning can strike 10 miles away from a storm, he said.

“If you hear the thunder, it’s time to take cover,” Bashoor said.

When lightning is in the area, he said, his crews limit their time outside buildings or vehicles and don’t perform non-emergency functions, like outdoor building inspections.

Fire crews did go out on a few lightning strike calls this week.

Around 1 p.m. Friday, crews from DeSoto City Station 19 responded to a lightning strike that caused minor damage to a home on Lakeshore Drive near Lake Istokpoga. The bolt burst water pipes and a window. The fire was minimal and isolated to a cypress tree, Bashoor said.

Also that day, fire crews investigated fires that Bashoor reported were likely due to power surges from lightning. The first was at Heartland Pediatrics on Royal Palm in Lake Placid and the other at the U.S. Post Office on State Road 98 in Lorida. There was no loss of life at either incident, Bashoor said.

Even as wet as it has been, HCFR units from Leisure Lakes 29 and 30, Desoto City 19, and Battalion 2 have dealt with a 3/4 acre brush fire in the area of Marilyn Street and Dean Drive in Leisure Lakes. That one started from lightning hitting a tree, Bashoor said.

Then, on Monday morning, fire crews out of Leisure Lakes Station 29 checked on smoke in the area and found the site still smoldering. Crews wet down the hot spots and Florida Forest Service was scheduled to check on it Tuesday.

Bashoor said the Leisure Lakes fire started despite the area having just received rain. He said that was a testament to how powerful lightning is and how quickly vegetation dries in Florida’s sandy soil and breezy weather.

He indicated that breezes on Sunday may have fanned the flames a bit, but because the ground had had rain, the fire didn’t take off as it normally does.

A couple of times lately, he said, fire crews have had to wait at the nearest road for a brush fire to come to them, at least until the Florida Forest Service arrived with a tractor plow to cut firebreaks and paths to the flames.

Highway Park's impressive improvements

LAKE PLACID – The Highway Park Neighborhood Council has been busy. Busy behind the scenes writing and winning grants and fundraising to fund several different projects in the Lake Placid subdivision. The most recent grants procured were the $10,000 Keep America Beautiful/Lowe’s Community Partners grant and a reimbursement grant from Florida Department of Transportation, which is up to $16,000.

The projects are slated for completion by June 28, according to HPNC Executive Director Evelyn Colon. The projects are to beautify the community and enrich the lives of those who live in the neighborhood.

Major efforts have gone into planning and creating the Veterans Memorial at the corner of Anderson Street. The patriotic park that honors the men and women serving in the armed forces, veterans and those who will serve can be seen from U.S 27.

The park, under the direction of Teddy Callahan Sr. and Dennis Crenshaw Sr., had many volunteers put in countless hours to create. New benches have been added for people to stop and reflect as they remember a loved one. Lighting has been installed so flags can be illuminated at night as they fly around the clock. New flags will be added soon.

An improved and larger basin to the fountain has been recently added by Larry’s Concrete. According to HPNC Secretary Patrice Ayala, the fountain’s new basin will allow the fountain to run 24/7 whereas before, its limited size prohibited the water running all day. The landscape is being freshened up as well.

Five bronze plaques representing the different military branches are to be installed. The improvements are to be completed by Independence Day. Engraved bricks are available at $50 each to honor military heros. The pavers are placed in a path around the fountain. To order an engraved brick, contact Crenshaw at 863-441-2784 or text 863-840-2995. Donate by mail at HPNC, P.O. Box 1678, Lake Placid, FL 33862 or online at hpng.org.

“I believe these projects are a visible representation of the HPNC Mission,” Ayala said. “They revitalize the community and give the citizens of Highway Park a sense of pride in our community.”

Colon invites the public to “meander” along Josephine Street near Brightside Street to check out the work being done to the Martin Luther King Jr. sports field at the Star Center. The Star Center provides free after-school care and tutoring. Shirley Wilson was the lead on the improvement projects there. Highlands County Board of County Commission provided the funds for the driveway to be repaved.

Invasive trees were removed at HPNC’s expense and a street light was repaired. A newly designed entrance, signage and accents will spruce up the center. For more information on the Star Center contact Theresa Williams at 13639 Josephine Ave.

The Great America Clean Up sponsored by FDOT was observed on June 18. Overgrown lots were chosen and cut down. The Keep Highway Park Beautiful council identified areas in the neighborhood with room for improvements. One area was a school bus stop at the corner of Bunchie and Curve Streets. According to Colon, the area became overgrown with weeds and was a trash magnet. The area was cleaned up and KHPB considered putting a cover over the bus stop area but will consult the School Board in case of future changes to the stop.

“We want our community and supporters to ‘see’ how their funds are spent,” Colon said. “None of this would be possible without our faithful volunteers, sponsors and supporters.”

Highlands has 20 new virus cases/state adds 3,286

SEBRING — The number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase significantly with 20 more cases in Highlands County and 3,286 additional cases statewide in the Tuesday’s update from the Florida Department of Health.

The Highlands total is now 258, with a statewide total number of cases at 103,503.

The number of deaths resulting from coronavirus stands at 10 for Highlands County. Officials say there are currently 20 people hospitalized with the virus.

There have been 23 cases in staff/residents at long-term care facilities and two cases in staff/residents in correctional institutions in Highlands County.

New case data for area counties shows 13 new cases in Hardee County for a total of 318, six new cases in Okeechobee County for a total of 256, 19 new cases in DeSoto County for a total of 487, and 17 new cases in Hendry County for a total of 780. There are no new cases in Glades County with its total remaining at 142.

Testing data shows that statewide 1,641,838 have been tested for COVID-19 with 6.3% being positive.

In Highlands County, 6,965 have been tested with 3.7% positive.

Heartland area counties with high percentages of positive tests include: Hardee, 15.9%; DeSoto, 12.2%; Glades, 24.6% and Hendry, 17.3%.

Miami-Dade County continues to lead the state with 26,822 cases and 902 deaths.

The number of COVID-19 related deaths in Florida increased by 64 to 3,237.

The State of New York has the highest number of cases (389,085) and deaths (31,198) among the 50 states.

Nationwide, there have been 2,325,970 cases with 120,771 deaths.

Worldwide, there have been 9,154,232 cases with 473,650 deaths.

AP Brickell Building - it's old, got mold, needs to be sold

AVON PARK — The city owned and vacant Brickell Building on Main Street continues to have mold and mildew issues as the city looks to sell the nearly 100-year-old structure.

The building incurred significant water intrusion from Hurricane Irma in September 2017. The structure got a new roof soon after the hurricane, but the mold persisted when no cleanup work was done on the interior.

The interior cleanup work of the building took place in February and March of 2019.

In May 2019 it was reported to council that an air quality test showed the Brickell Building continued to have some mold issues after the 17-day cleanup effort.

In June 2019, the latest air quality report showed the structure still had possible fungal growth, but overall the air quality had improved.

Mayor Garrett Anderson said Tuesday that it was discovered that there are still some air quality issues in the Brickell Building related to mold and mildew.

It was determined that it would always be an ongoing issue because there is no air conditioning in the building and it is closed off all the time, he said.

The air quality expert informed the city that until there is air conditioning operating all the time it would be fruitless to try to remediate it again, Anderson said.

It was decided at Monday’s council meeting to have the city attorney draw up a plan on what has to be done to sell the building whether through a bid or an auction.

After receiving the information from the city attorney, the City Council at its next meeting will discuss how it will go about listing and selling the building, Anderson said.

Deputy Mayor Stanley Spurlock said Tuesday the city should sell the building “as is” and find the best way to do that.

“I am hoping for a good buyer,” he said. “We are going to try to sell the building however legally we can do it.”

Councilwoman Maria Sutherland said, “At this point, I would advocate giving it to someone that could rehab it with provable financial back-up, planning and specific timing to completion.?

“For now, if it needs A/C then let’s do it,” she added. Otherwise anyone buying it without a plan may very well allow it to sit and devolve into further blight.

The building was recently appraised at $285,000.

The 25,453-square-foot building at 2 E. Main St. was built in 1921. The City of Avon Park purchased it for $370,000 and then took possession of it on Oct. 27, 2014.