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Supervisors hold on debris agreement

SEBRING — Sun ‘N Lake supervisors want to sign an interlocal agreement with Highlands County Government to clear debris if there’s another major hurricane.

However, they have learned there might be some changes to the agreement, given that certain municipalities may still have concerns and that certain details of the agreement might change.

That said, they voted to table the matter on Friday rather than sign the agreement, at least for now. They still have time: The current agreement comes up for renewal on Sept. 11 — which coincides with the day after Hurricane Irma struck on Sept. 10, 2017.

Sun ‘N Lake Special Improvement District had its share of damage from the storm, including the blowout of a water retention structure and damage to the wastewater treatment plant from fallen trees, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs. Cities still had piles of debris well into the summer of 2018 and it was almost two years later that Highlands County started seeing reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the cost of picking up, hauling and processing vegetation and building rubble.

The initial debris tally from that storm, as of December 2017, equaled approximately 900,000 cubic yards. It was expected to get up to 1 million cubic yards with a price tag of $13.5 million.

One surprise for people was not that it took two years to get reimbursed, but that it didn’t take longer than that.

Last year, County Engineer Clinton Howerton Jr. pushed for an interlocal agreement to charge municipalities and improvement districts up to 25% of the debris removal cost, if they have the county do it, to help defray how much the county has to use in reserves for the task.

Howerton said last September that originally was the draft agreement. However, county commissioners amended the draft agreement during the Sept. 1 meeting after hearing from Sebring and Lake Placid city officials in person. The county committed approximately $15 million in county reserves up-front to collect all the storm debris in the county, then averaged an 88%-90% reimbursemnt rate from FEMA, County Administrator Randy Vosburg said at the time.

In September last year, Howerton told commissioners how FEMA looks to local agencies to do recovery efforts, but demands those entities have interlocal agreements in place if one entity does recovery efforts for several jurisdictions. After Hurricane Irma, the county stepped in to collect debris for all the municipalities because the county already had a contract signed with an outside service.

The problem, Howerton said, was that the county did not have interlocal agreements in place with the incorporated areas.

“I hesitate to say this on public record,” Howerton said at the time, “but we didn’t have an agreement in place, and that was really dangerous for us to have done because we might not have been reimbursed by FEMA.”

Luckily, FEMA did reimburse the county very well, but to prevent possible problems in the future, the county needs to have the agreement in place. Howerton wanted an agreement in place for the 2019 season, which fortunately did not have any landfalls that traveled to Highlands County. The current agreement, up for renewal, ends in September. That’s how long it took to get something in place during the 2020 storm season.

Sun ‘N Lake’s General Manager Dan Stegall suggested on Friday that they could approve an agreement with the county, provisionally, as long as he and David Schumacher — legal counsel for the improvement district — don’t have any problems with the final version.

One challenge, Schumacher said, is that between the time that district staff put out the agenda packet and the time of Friday’s meeting, the county had changed its agreement.

“I was board president when [Hurricane] Irma hit,” Supervisor Mike Gilpin said Friday. “[This agreement] went very well. I don’t care if we wait, [but] it’s very important to have an agreement, for us.”

With the current agreement still good until Sept. 11, supervisors had no problem with waiting on approving a new one, for now.

NAACP holds Flag Day Observance

AVON PARK — Southside Veterans Gardens, at the corner of Verona and Calvin Porter Avenues in Avon Park, was the site of the NAACP Flag Day Observance. The event was hosted by the Highlands County NAACP Veterans Affairs Committee.

The park was dedicated in 2008 and has a plaque which reads, “This garden is dedicated to the men and women of the military who have valiantly served and those that continue to serve the United States of America.” It was sponsored by The Southside Community Redevelopment Agency Advisory Committee.

Although it was a warm day, the park offered a nice pergola, tree-shaded areas and benches. Bonita Sykes, Annette Davis and Diana Moss were grilling up some hot dogs for the veterans and guests to enjoy.

“My husband, Herbert, was in the Navy, so I was a veteran’s wife,” said Sykes. “He’s also the pastor at Carolina Avenue Church of Christ. Annette and Diana are members of our congregation here to help and support our veterans.”

“My daughter, Annquinetta, is a Navy veteran and also graduated from Avon Park High School,” said Moss.

Al Nolton is the Highlands County NAACP Chairman of Veterans Affairs. “The reason we’re here today is our veterans. We’ve always held our annual Veterans breakfast, but was unable to do so last year due to COVID.

“Our veterans needed a break, a reason to get out. It’s a good feeling seeing them here, having a good time with each other. We’ve all been so closed in, this is really a great day.”

Each veteran received lunch (hot dogs, chips and a cold beverage) and a ‘Care Bag.’ The Care Bags were donated by Good Shepherd Hospice, Royal Care and Florida Home Health. They included face masks, sanitizer, tissues, veteran’s assistance information, Shield Medical information, a cup coozie and information on Royal Care and Florida Home Health.

Veterans enjoying the breeze in the park while visiting with each other included Ron Johnson (Army Engineer – Vietnam), Art Williams (Army – Vietnam), Garoy Welch (Army – Medic), Herbert Sykes (Navy – Minister) and Marshall Johnson (Army – Vietnam).

Some of the veterans who drove up to receive their bags and a Flag Day pin from Nolton included George Washington Loyd (Army), Alexander Council (Army) and Prince Martin (Army).

“Tammie Meeks (Good Shepherd Hospice) has been there to help with this program for over four years,” said Angel Wiggins (Highlands County NAACP President/Royal Care). “They’ve been loyal partners with the NAACP and veterans programs.

“She makes sure the veterans in skilled facilities receive their honors and salutes during the veteran’s holidays. Good Shepherd also has support groups. We‘re all here today to thank and support our veterans.”

Wiggins leads a group of dedicated ladies who are working to make Highlands County a better place for everyone. They are very active in projects and are getting things done.

Some of her team includes Pat Henderson, Susie Johnson, Davette Thompson, Brenda Gray and Roxie McMillion.

Good food, good friends and good music, courtesy of KISS radio, made for an enjoyable day at the park.

“We can do nothing without you Lord. Thank you, thank you,” said Al Nolton as he led the attendees in prayer.

ARES getting ready: Radio operators training for disasters

SEBRING — With four years since the last hurricane hit Highlands County, and a year of having to avoid face-to-face meetings, local radio operators have still kept training.

Emergency Management still relies on volunteers from the Highlands County Amateur Radio Club to run radio contact stations at shelters and other key locations, as needed, when other means of communication fail. Members had a portion of the main booth at this year’s Hurricane Expo at Lakeshore Mall.

Brad Haag, club president and call sign KM4VRU, said the club members have spent the last year training in private because of COVID-19 but have begun having field training days again. Each year, the operators run shortwave radios at the Emergency Operations Center and have members of the Amateur Radio Emergency System (ARES) stationed at shelters with their own radios.

One of the largest in recent years came in June 2018, the next summer after Hurricane Irma. ARES operators spent two days joining up with roughly 40,000 operators across the nation to practice getting set up quickly and contacting as many other operators as possible to provide a lifeline.

A shortwave transmitter can reach both local and global audiences, which makes it a reliable platform for communication in most circumstances. In an article about World Radio Day, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) stated that shortwave radio works using a unique long-distance propagation property of shortwave radio waves. They reflect and bounce many times off upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. Thus, shortwave radio can provide service where other platforms such as satellite, FM or Internet are unavailable due to high cost, geographical location, lack of infrastructure or just natural or man-made disasters.

Haag has said there are forms of interference, such as low solar spot activity. Without that radiation to ionize the upper atmosphere, radio operators have trouble bouncing signals from one point on Earth to another point well beyond the horizon.

The group wants to pull in more members, among those trained to run shortwave radios and licensed by the Federal Communication Commission to do so. The FCC at www.fcc.gov states that amateur and amateur-satellite services exist for qualified persons of any age who are interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and who are not trying to make money off it. There are 29 small frequency bands throughout the spectrum, allocated to this service internationally.

Every amateur radio operator has an alphanumeric call sign, issued by the Federal Communications Commission. The club has a group call sign of K4W. Information on the Highlands County Amateur Radio Club states that the club wants to include all amateur radio operators, no matter what type of radio they use. They hold monthly meetings and daily and weekly “nets” — on-air gatherings of club members.

They also get together three times each week for face-to-face meetings, something they have been able to begin again now that vaccinations have taken place. Times and locations are 8:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at Smoke Shack at 123 U.S. 27. North in Lake Placid and at 9 a.m. Fridays at Dee’s Place, 138 N. Ridgewood Drive in Sebring.

Florida's COVID death reporting sees big change

When Florida became the first state in the country to change to a weekly reporting method for COVID-19, the state changed more than when cases are reported. It also changed the way deaths are counted, switching to date of death reporting, as opposed to waiting for the death to be a confirmed COVID death.

The Florida Department of Health’s first weekly report came out on June 4 and showed the state with 36,985 deaths. The latest report, which was released June 11, showed the state with 40 new deaths during the week, but the total number of deaths on the report was 37,265, which is an increase of 280 from the previous week.

When a COVID death occurs, it can take weeks or months for it to be counted, which is known as the death reporting lag. This can occur for many different reasons, ranging from waiting for corner’s reports to reviewing records to cases getting lost in the shuffle. But it does make it difficult to track current numbers, as many deaths that are just reported occurred much earlier.

On June 7, Wisconsin reported 17 COVID deaths. But just one of them was from the previous two weeks, with most of them occurring in January and one happened in July, 2020. Houston, which keeps tabs of its own numbers, did something similar the following day when the city reported seven deaths, of which five occurred in May, with the other two taking place in January and February.

California, which has a built-in delay in reporting its death numbers, reported an average of 66.3 deaths May 1-15, but the same days show 18.5 deaths per day when looking at it from a date of death perspective.

While listing deaths by when they are reported as COVID deaths has its flaws, the date of death reporting isn’t going to be completely accurate, either. A death which occurs several days before a state report is released may not have time to be counted, so the actual number of deaths is likely to be higher than is being reported.

The other big change for Florida by switching to a weekly reporting method was the removal of non-resident data, even for those who spend half of their time in the Sunshine State, as more than 43,500 cases and 744 deaths were removed from the data.

Friday’s FDOH COVID report did show the state reverse a downward vaccination trend, as it ended a nine-week downward trend in the number of vaccines given in the state. It was a small increase, from 411,222 to 413,880 and nearly 1 million doses than were given in early April.

Florida ranks No. 23 out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in percentage of population to have received one vaccine dose and No. 28 in terms of the percentage of population that is fully vaccinated.

Florida’s downward trend mirrors what’s being seen in the United States, as the CDC is reporting an average of 1.12 million vaccines given per day, which is well below the 3.37 million average that was seen two months ago. THE CDC says the U.S. will have to maintain its current vaccination rate for five months to have the target 75% of the population vaccinated.