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50,000 lose power as trees cause outages and mess


The 12 years since the last major storm blew through Indian River County was a welcome respite, but it also gave the area’s trees a chance to grow  tall and lanky, providing perfect fodder for Hurricane Matthew’s winds to hurl branches onto power lines and scatter limbs, palm fronds, leaves and berries everywhere.

At the worst point, Vero had about 20,000 customers without electricity, and Florida Power & Light had more than 30,000 customers without power. On Monday, 750 customers were still without electricity, in part because new outages were occurring as transformers damaged in the storm continued to fail.

Residents with power outages caused by trees were some of the last to be restored.  Not only did the 110 hired electrical contractors from all over the Southeastern United States need to fix the transmission equipment, but tree crews had to cut up and remove the culprit tree branches.

Two of the oldest parts of Vero Beach – Old Riomar in Central Beach and Original Town on the mainland – were hit the hardest, but big trees went down across the county.

On the plus side, Vero sustained no major structural damage to city buildings or vehicles. “Damage was primarily caused by trees, nothing identified as major damage,” said City Manager Jim O’Connor.

Both the airport and marina made it through the storm mostly intact.

Tim Grabenbauer, Harbormaster at the Vero Beach Municipal Marina, said Monday that two floating finger piers were damaged, including one that needs to be replaced. The other sustained a broken piling that can be repaired. Also damaged was an office computer and a fuel dispenser. One large sailboat blew aground when its mooring lines chafed.

"The owner is in Spain," Grabenbauer said, "but we got it back in the water and secured to a mooring again.

Grabenbauer said the marina, where 90 to 100 boats were docked during the storm, was "back up and running" at 10 a.m. Sunday.

Vero Beach Regional Airport closed Thursday ahead of the storm and reopened on Saturday.

"The airfield looks good," Airport Director Eric Menger said.  "The water drained the way it was supposed to. The markings and signs were still in place, except for the signs we took down so they wouldn't blow away. We also checked the security fence. The only damage we saw was to some of the hangars, but it wasn't anything major."

Neither the airport terminal nor tower lost power during the hurricane, which was the first to hit the Vero Beach area since Wilma in October 2005.  But the airfield lighting was lost for a few hours before being restored Friday morning.

The airplanes parked at the airport were either in hangars or tied down outdoors with their noses pointed to the northeast – into the hurricane's projected winds.

"There were about 13 or 14 tied down," Menger said, "and when we checked on them in the morning, they all seemed to be right where we left them."

Many other owners opted to fly their aircraft out of town and park them at airports out of the storm’s reach.

"In situations like this, we're the exact opposite of a marina," Menger said. "Usually, when boaters see a storm like this approaching, they bring their boats into a marina to keep them safe. Airplane owners, on the other hand, want to get their planes out of harm's way. A lot of airplanes flew out before the storm."

Indian River County department heads on Monday afternoon were still compiling their damage assessments with dollar estimates for repair for a report to the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, but County Administrator Jason Brown’s executive assistant Dori Roy said preliminary reports showed no major structural damage – though more than $1 million in county losses have been tabulated so far.

Brown said the storm destroyed $800,000 worth of traffic signals and that Historic Jones Pier on the Indian River Lagoon suffered $250,000 in damage. Building A at the county administration center, which has leaked since it was built, stayed true to form and let in enough water to do $80,000 worth of damage to drywall and carpet.

Indian River Shores Town Manager Robbie Stabe said the Town did well. “We had no damage to any Town buildings. The one Town dune-crossover at Beachcomber Lane was damaged and will need to be repaired or replaced. The only issue we had was our generator failed [due to a blown circuit board] and the employees had to improvise using portable generators.”

To help with the cleanup, starting Thursday, the City of Vero Beach will have a contractor picking up vegetative debris only from the right-of-way in the city limits.

The city sent out a notice Monday saying, “There will be only one pass on each street. When stacking your debris next to the road please provide a minimum of 5-foot clearance from water meters, electrical transformers, fire hydrants, mail boxes, power poles, etc. Do not place piles under low lying limbs that may hinder the ability of the equipment to pick up the vegetative debris.

Do not place piles over storm drains which could block drainage and cause your neighborhood to flood. Non-vegetative items such as fencing or construction debris are not allowed.”

O’Connor said local governments received word that they have been approved for 80 percent reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for eligible expenses, not including utility repairs.