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Okeechobee County residents begin cleanup after strong winds damage homes, businesses

'It's crazy. I've never been through anything like this,' Debbie Smalls says
Posted at 8:24 PM, Jun 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-16 20:48:41-04

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — Residents in Okeechobee are getting back on their feet after strong winds ripped through Thursday night, damaging homes, collapsing the roofs of several businesses and catapulting a shed across a busy road.

Earl Wooten, the public safety director for Okeechobee County, said no one was injured. The WPTV First Alert Weather team confirmed it wasn't a tornado, but residents said it sure felt like one.

"It sounded like a freight train," James Rouse, who was out Friday with his wife cleaning up debris around the Starlite RV park, said. "Nice day to do this. We're just picking up the remainders, trying to straighten up a little bit."

Many of the residents that WPTV talked to said the experience was terrifying. The RV park sits right in between a Winn-Dixie and Home Depot that were also damaged.

The Winn-Dixie along U.S. 411 had to close early due to flooding from roof damage, while officials said wind damaged a home behind the store while the homeowners were away.

James Rouse was busy Friday cleaning up debris after strong storms blew through Okeechobee County.
James Rouse was busy Friday cleaning up debris after strong storms blew through Okeechobee County.

On the other side of the RV park, the wind twisted off part of the roof of a flea market and wrenched apart the siding of a Home Depot.

It also tore down Rob and Monica Whisman's brand-new canopy, rocking their recreational vehicle back and forth.

"[I] just sat in the RV and held on for dear life, basically. It was pretty scary," Whisman said. "It never shook like that before, not even during last year's hurricanes.”

Whisman said she held her Chihuahua tight, praying the storm would pass.

"I told him it would be OK, and that I had him, and that wherever we go, we'll go together," Whisman said.

"Did you think at that moment there was a very real possibility you'd get picked up by that wind?" asked WPTV reporter Kate Hussey.

"Yes," Whisman said.

The strong winds blew this shed from a property, leaving it along a road in Okeechobee County.
The strong winds blew this shed from a property, leaving it along a road in Okeechobee County.

Perhaps even scarier is what happened to Debbie Smalls. The owner of Debbie's Deals & Discounts was driving to an auction when she said she drove through what looked like a funnel cloud, debris slamming into her car.

"It just smacked it so hard I almost died, and when I looked to my left, I guess it had already flown over my car. I (saw) this shed that was out behind the flea market rolling towards me in the road, and I was like, 'Oh my God,' and I hit the gas and tried to get away from it," Smalls said. "I was shaking."

Smalls also said that the shed narrowly missed the front of her car, and joked she almost lost one of her nine lives.

"I think I have about six or seven left," laughed Smalls. "I don't know. I'm just glad to be here.”

Smalls' car was scratched, dented and the glass on her driver's side door was splintered.

Debbie Smalls discusses the damage the storm did to her car.
Debbie Smalls discusses the damage the storm did to her car.

"Well, what are you gonna do you know?" Smalls asked. "I can't even open this door."

Smalls said she's just thankful she made it out alive, and Rouse and his wife, Linda Key, agreed.

"We give God the credit for that," Key said.

The couple said they hope as they move forward from this storm, another one won't follow any time soon.

"We're afraid of another one," Key said.

As of Friday night, the Home Depot had reopened, but the Winn-Dixie was still closed.

Meredith Hurley, Senior Director of Communications & Community for Southeastern Grocers, released the statement on behalf of the store:

"The safety of our people – associates and customers – is of paramount importance and always acts as our guiding principle. As we assess the damage sustained to our Okeechobee Winn-Dixie store, we are making our best effort to reopen as quickly and safely as possible to continue to serve and support our local community."