High Springs strike team recalls Ian devastation  

Strike Team 1301 members Kevin Pearson, Kim Arnold, Samuel Lesak, Chris Tatum and Adam Hudson deployed to South Florida for a week following Hurricane Ian.
Strike Team 1301 members Kevin Pearson, Kim Arnold, Samuel Lesak, Chris Tatum and Adam Hudson deployed to South Florida for a week following Hurricane Ian. (Photo by Seth Johnson)

In a first deployment for most, High Springs firefighters along with a Newberry firefighter, manned one of five engines in Strike Team 1301 that responded to Hardee County and North Ft. Myers for a week following Hurricane Ian.  

Debris snagged itself in a tree.
Courtesy Samuel Lesak Debris snagged itself in a tree.

During the four days in North Ft. Myers, the strike team ran 250 calls between the units. Typically, the High Springs Fire Department will respond to that amount over a two-month span. 

This was the first time High Springs responded as a strike team for disaster relief, and High Springs Fire Chief Bruce Gillingham led the group, composed of units from Alachua, Marion, Clay and Putnam counties. 

Get The Latest News

Don't miss our top stories every weekday in your inbox.

“I used to go to Fort Myers a lot, stayed at a couple of hotels, and I mean, I witnessed that those hotels are not there anymore,” High Springs firefighter Kim Arnold said.  

Four of the High Springs personnel, along with Samuel Lesak from Newberry, gathered at their home station on Tuesday to recount the events.  

The team received orders on the night of Sept. 28, as Hurricane Ian worked its way over Polk County, that they would deploy Friday morning. But the timeline escalated.  

“And then, ‘Oh, no. Now you’re deploying on Thursday morning’,” Adam Hudson recalled. “So, then we had to scramble to go grab some things.” 

While Alachua County remained under a tropical storm watch, the strike team headed south to the Orlando Convention Center, a staging center for relief crews, to receive their orders.  

Lesak said the number of resources were “astronomical” with utility crews everywhere along with the largest group of Florida Highway Patrol personnel they’d ever seen.  

At 5 a.m. on Friday, the team left for Hardee County and detoured around flooding and downed power lines. 

Flood waters surround homes in South Florida.
Courtesy Samuel Lesak Flood waters surround homes in South Florida.

“So, we had to snake our way around all these back roads to find out how to get to Hardee County and finally got there,” Hudson said.  

In both Hardee County and North Ft. Myers, the teams responded to the local calls for service in order to relieve the local firefighters. They also conducted grid searches and went door-to-door to check on residents. 

At 5 a.m. on Saturday, the team left for North Ft. Myers where they would stay for four days.  

“You look across where there was a bunch of trees—there is none,” Hudson said. “There was a house there; there is none. I mean, there’s just debris everywhere.”   

Positioned at three different fire stations, the strike team responded mostly to medical calls with one structural fire thrown in. They cleared debris and checked on residents.  

Family members across the country called an 800 number, asking emergency responders to check certain addresses. Sometimes the same address would get repeated as different family members called in.  

Arnold said the High Springs team could respond with a higher level of service after the storm than residents would receive during normal times. The High Springs engine is equipped with advanced life support versus the local station’s basic life support system.  

Crews worked to remove a fallen tree from a home.
Courtesy Samuel Lesak Crews worked to remove a fallen tree from a home.

However, navigating the post-Ian destruction caused problems. Hudson, the driver, said road signs had disappeared and GPS was spotty. Even the engine’s computers and cell phones were hit or miss. 

“They’ve gotten so used to relying on a GPS as well and then realizing, ‘Oh crap, maybe we might need some maps for next time,’” Arnold said.  

The teams rearranged to allow a local firefighter to ride with the engine and help navigate. The team said internet service began to improve throughout the week.  

“When we first left, it was hard to find fuel, find stores and power and things like that,” Arnold said. “As the week progressed, things were more established, and it definitely made all this effort go a little easier.”  

Lesak, the Newberry teammate, likened the scenes to a wasteland, and the others agreed. They compared the damage to that of a tornado, with some areas completely gone while others looked normal.  

The crews stayed at the local fire stations, sleeping on air mattresses or recliners. Other groups, like Task Force 1, headed to even more impacted areas, spending days without running water or power before returning to a staging area.  

On Wednesday, the strike team drove to the Lee County Convention Center staging area. The team said the center was still filled with activity almost a week after the hurricane—forklifts driving around as crews continued setting up tents and cots.  

A home shows signs of the high water that flooded it, with footprints left in the mud.
Courtesy Samuel Lesak A home shows signs of the high water that flooded it, with footprints left in the mud.

On Thursday, the strike team returned home.  

“I mean, you just kind of take for granted what your hometown looks like,” Arnold said.  

With trees standing straight and roads without debris, Alachua County contrasted against South Florida. The crew called it a humbling experience and said it put issues into perspective.  

Publix running out of an item lacks the importance after seeing home after home receiving a red tag to show it was unhabitable, they said. 

“It’s just hard knowing that this is three or four hours south,” Arnold said. “It’s not something you’re seeing on TV in another country.” 

The High Springs crew said they learned how to improve and will prep for the next time they’re called up. They aim to buy a trailer and stockpile supplies like nonperishable food, cots and even extra uniforms. The trailer will prevent any last-hour scrambling if a deployment gets pushed up.  

While the High Springs crew members were gone, Kevin Mangan, public information officer for High Springs, said the other shifts had to backfill. Some members worked overtime to make sure local residents were covered, he said.  

“As an agency, I think we’re thankful that we actually have a group of people here that are willing and ready to go,” Mangan said. 

Crews leave utility trucks lined up at a staging area.
Courtesy Samuel Lesak Crews leave utility trucks lined up at a staging area.

He said that state officials now know High Springs can launch its own strike force group if needed. 

The first convoy made its way over a shored-up Sanibel Causeway to aid power restoration — the first vehicles to make their way to Sanibel Island since Hurricane Ian came through 13 days earlier.  

“A lot of those people barely had anything as it is, and what they did have, they don’t have anymore,” Arnold said. 

All five engines and crew members of Strike Team 1301.
Courtesy Samuel Lesak All five engines and crew members of Strike Team 1301.
High Springs crew members said debris lined streets and formed all that remained of some homes.
Courtesy Samuel Lesak High Springs crew members said debris lined streets and formed all that remained of some homes.
Debris left behind from a home.
Courtesy Samuel Lesak Debris left behind from a home.
A house gets hit by a fallen tree.
Courtesy Samuel Lesak A house gets hit by a fallen tree.
Helicopters stand by at a staging area.
Courtesy Samuel Lesak Helicopters stand by at a staging area.
Debris litters lawns in South Florida.
Courtesy Samuel Lesak Debris litters lawns in South Florida.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
2 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mike

I was surprised at how some areas are totally devastated and others just heavily damaged. So many homes are still near where they were built, with a chance the owners might still find memorabilia they were keeping. And, so many trees are still standing.

It’s hard to find them, but there are a lot of areas that have promise for recovery in months instead of years.

Linda

Excellent article. So proud of our High Springs and Newberry firefighters. I can’t imagine how hard it must been to encounter such losses and I know local resources were relieved for their assistance.