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George Floyd has connections in Highlands County

AVON PARK — George P. Floyd, the man at the center of the uproar in Minneapolis, was a former Highlands County resident and student athlete at South Florida State College, at the time known as South Florida Community College. Floyd died Monday night after being arrested and pinned to the ground by a Minneapolis police officer’s knee. A viral video surfaced of the arrest, sparking outrage and protest of the treatment of African-Americans by white law enforcement.

Floyd played center and power forward on the Panthers basketball team during his time at the local college. South Florida State College released a statement Thursday morning stating, “Officials at South Florida State College confirm that George P. Floyd attended South Florida Community College from 1993 to 1995. During his time as a student he was a member of the Panther basketball team in the fall of 1994 and in the spring of 1995.”

Coach George Walker was the Panther’s basketball coach for six years and remembered Floyd fondly.

“George was a good person and I never had any problems with George,” Walker said Thursday. “He was a regular student and a good athlete. He was just a regular student who would miss class now and then, but other than that he was a good kid. He was a good player who averaged 14 points and eight rebounds a game. He ended up leaving after his two years at South Florida and went to Texas A&I in Kingsville, Texas.”

Walker recalled his enjoyment in coaching Floyd.

“I had not only him but I had three or four other guys from the Houston area. I coached at the University of Houston before moving to South Florida Community College so Houston was my biggest recruiting area. I was looking for a power center and power forward so I was looking at Yates High School, which was right across from the University of Houston, where George attended. I kind of kept my eyes on them for a couple of years.

“George was not only a good player, but a good person with a good heart. He did what I needed him to do at South Florida and I couldn’t have asked for any more,” he said.

Walker had seen on television the reports of what happened to Floyd.

“I think it is horrible what happened to George. It’s not right and something should be done about it,” he said.

According to the Associated Press, Floyd moved to Minneapolis from his native Houston several years ago in hopes of finding work and starting a new life, said Christopher Harris, Floyd’s lifelong friend. But he lost his job as a bouncer at a restaurant when Minnesota’s governor issued a stay-at-home order.

On Monday night, an employee at a Minneapolis grocery store called police after Floyd allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill.

In a widely circulated cellphone video of the subsequent arrest, Floyd, who was black, can be seen on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back while a white police officer presses him to the pavement with his knee on Floyd’s neck. The video shows the officer holding Floyd down for minutes as Floyd complains he can’t breathe. The video ends with paramedics lifting a limp Floyd onto a stretcher and placing him in an ambulance.

The four Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s arrest were fired Wednesday.

Floyd’s death is under investigation by the FBI and state law enforcement authorities.

Robert “Bobby” Caldwell, who now lives in Virginia, was close friends with Floyd.

“I met George when he played basketball at SFCC,” Caldwell told the Highlands News-Sun. “We met through mutual friends and we became really cool. He was a big guy but was like a gentle giant. He was so cool and relaxed. He used to give me a hard time about my sneakers because I always had the latest shoes. He was just so kind, sweet and always smiling. I used to give the guys rides; they were known as the ‘Jac Boys’ because they stayed at the Jacaranda in Avon Park. We just clicked. He would always talk about H-town, which was Houston. I felt like I needed to go to Houston because he loved it so much, Caldwell said, adding he couldn’t believe the news reports about his friend’s passing.

“When I saw George Floyd on the news, I was thinking ‘why does this guy look so familiar?’,” Caldwell said. “My wife showed me a photo that said ‘Floyd’ and I said ‘wait a minute, that is my Floyd.’ We never called him George, we always just called him Floyd. To see him begging for his life, I just could not believe it. I still haven’t watched the full video because I just can’t do it.”

Caldwell is originally from Avon Park and said back in 2010 or 2012 some of the residents spoke before City Council about how men of color were treated by local law enforcement. “It is all around the nation. It hits really hard for me because I remember when I went to school in Tampa we were pulled over by the cops and they were trying to put dogs on us. When stuff like this happens, it reopens those wounds. I have to have ‘the talk’ with my son because he 22 and when he goes out, he has to be respectful to people of authority. It is painful and very hurtful. I did not sleep well last night. If you would have known him and seen anyone treat him like that, he is just not that guy.

According to Caldwell, Floyd would not approve of the violence and riots going on in Minneapolis.

“I agree with the protests going on, but not the violence,” Caldwell said. “Violence is not the answer, but I get it. I tell all my white friends, ‘imagine if that were my son, how would you feel?’ I don’t care if you are black, white, Hispanic or whatever, if you have been wronged by anyone, I will speak out against that. This will not go away and it is heartbreaking. I don’t think Floyd would approve of violence but I can see his smile and I think he would say ‘man, they are doing this for me? Wow!’

“He was not a braggadocios guy; he was so relaxed, humble and chill. Just a great guy and this is all heartbreaking. He was the type of guy you wanted to date your daughter or have your kids be friends with,” Caldwell said.

A peaceful gathering will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 30 at Emmanuel United Church of Christ (EUCC) in Sebring.

In a statement released by EUCC stated, “Over the years Emmanuel UCC has shared the call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the Lord. A few days ago, we witnessed the death of George Floyd. Mr. Floyd lived in Avon Park and attended South Florida State College, where he played basketball. Many in Highlands County know Mr. Floyd personally. Our community is wounded right now. Our nation is wounded. Our black and brown sisters and brothers are understandably upset. This is not an anti-police event or a gathering to incite violence, but a way to compassionately, faithfully say ‘Emmanuel UCC believes in justice, kindness, and humility for all.’”

The Non-Violent Peaceful Sign of Solidarity for the Minneapolis Community event will take place in the church parking lot at 3115 Hope St. in Sebring. Participants are to wear masks and are encouraged to wear blue as a sign of peace and hope. At 11:10 a.m., Rev. George Miller will speak as a representative of EUCC and local clergy. Participants are expected to adhere to social distance protocol.

The public, local clergy and law enforcement are invited to participate.

5 more virus cases in Highlands

SEBRING — As the daily number of new cases decreased to one or none in the past few days, there were five new COVID-19 cases Wednesday in Highlands County for a total of 119.

A total of 37 have been hospitalized over the course of the pandemic with 8 deaths.

The summary data for Highlands County lists 1 case among correctional facility staff/residents in Highlands with 2,452 such cases statewide.

Florida’s total number of cases is 53,285 with 9,795 hospitalizations and 2,364 deaths, according to the latest data from the Florida Department of Health. Florida had 624 new cases on Wednesday.

The demographics of the Highlands resident cases show 59 male cases and 58 female cases within an age range of 0 to 85 with a median age of 55.

The age group of 55-64 has clearly the highest number of cases with 30 followed by the 75-84 age group with 16 cases.

Hardee County recorded 25 new cases in the past five days for a total of 88 cases. Hardee’s 25-34 age group has 29 cases. There have been no COVID-19 deaths in Hardee County.

DeSoto County recorded 30 new cases in the past five days for a total of 132 including 28 cases in the 25-34 age group. There have been 8 virus deaths in DeSoto County.

While the South Florida counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach have had the most cases and deaths, Hillsborough County has the fourth highest numbers in the state with 2,019 cases and 76 deaths. Hillsborough recorded 201 new cases in the past five days.

Nationwide, there have been 1,708,726 case with 100,769 deaths.

Worldwide, there have been 5,925,063 cases with 357,377 deaths.

Hurricane shelters and the coronavirus

SEBRING – COVID-19 has changed our collective lives in many ways. Now, coronavirus is changing the way we hunker down for hurricane season, which starts Monday. Federal, state and county officials are forced to prepare for a hurricane season in the middle of this pandemic.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted this year’s hurricane season to be above-average with storm activity. Hurricane season officially starts on June 1 and runs through Nov. 30. However, Mother Nature is no respecter of calendars. So far, there have been two tropical storms, Arthur and Bertha, before the season officially starts. Both storms threatened the Carolinas.

According to NOAA Meteorologist Rodney Wynn, it has been since 2016 that there were two named storms before the start of the season, Hurricane Alex and Tropical Storm Bonnie.

Highlands County Emergency Manager LaTosha “Tosha” Reiss and the Highlands County Board of County Commission are urging residents to “Know Your Home,” a campaign to help residents know what their homes can withstand.

Reiss said more shelters would have to be opened in case of a storm to comply with CDC guidelines. The three major shelters in the county are Lake Placid High School, Alan Jay Arena and the Avon Park Rec Center. The special needs shelter is at the Bert J. Harris Jr. Agricultural Center. The special needs shelter requires annual preregistration that can be obtained through the Department of Health; call 863-386-6040. Reiss said that individuals entering a shelter would be screened and temperatures checked often.

“We are encouraging people to shelter in place,” Reiss said. “If you feel your house is safe and it’s not in a flood zone, it may be safer at home. Congregate shelters should be the last option.”

BoCC Assistant Public Information Officer Karen Clogston said individuals should look at other avenues of evacuating such as a neighbor’s home or with other family members. Local shelters should be the place of last resort and advanced plans should be put in place before storms threaten.

The BoCC has shared wind standards on houses by the year they were built. Newer homes are built to withstand higher winds.

Homes built in March 2012 or after, are required to withstand 130-140 mph winds.

Homes built between March 2002 to March 2012 were built to withstand 120-130 mph.

Homes built before March 2002 were built to sustain 90 mph.

The News Service of Florida reported the state has set aside a reserve of 10 million face masks, 1 million face shields and 5 million gloves to deal with the virus and hurricane system.

The Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz told NSF that evacuations to shelters could be altered.

“We’ve been always telling people to leave. Now, potentially, county emergency managers will be saying, ‘Know your home, know your (flood) zone,’” Moskowitz said. “So, if you live in a surge zone, yes, you’ll still have to get out. But if your house was a new construction. It’s built to code and we get a Category 1 or Category 2 storm, perhaps they’ll decide that the safest place for you to be is in your home. So, the issue is shelter in place. That’s clearly different.”

“People who go to shelters are less likely to be crowded into single large rooms,” NSF reported Wednesday. “Caps will be placed, maybe 50 people to a shelter, or evacuees could be spread across complexes such as schools, where each classroom could be used by five to 10 people. Another possibility is that people could find themselves filling hotels that would otherwise be low on occupancy.”

News Service of Florida contributed to this story.