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Wauchula residents left with nothing: 'The building is on fire, and there's no help coming'

In the thick of Hurricane Ian, an apartment fire began in Wauchula. Residents were given a moment's notice to evacuate, most lost everything.

WAUCHULA, Fla — Hardee County was hit hard by Hurricane Ian, including flooding, strong winds knocking down trees and wiping out power, and flooding from the Peace River in the days that followed. 

On Wednesday night, as Hurricane Ian was passing through Wauchula, an apartment fire started at Valencia Gardens. Sixteen units were burned to the ground. 

As the flames consumed the building, residents were told Fire and Rescue were not coming. The reason why – 76 miles per hour wind speeds made conditions unsafe. 

Police received a call about the fire at 10:28 p.m. Wednesday night. Police Chief John Eason said he had officers on the scene at 10:29. Eight officers went door to door, evacuating every resident from the apartment building.

As the structure was engulfed with flames, high speeds sent embers swirling through the complex. Police alerted residents at the three nearby buildings of concerns the fire would spread. 

Nineteen residents were evacuated and brought to Advent Health, a hospital nearby in Wauchula. There were no deaths or injuries reported related to the fire. One patient was treated for an unrelated injury. 

"If my officers weren't there to evacuate the building," Eason said, "We'd have been pulling bodies out of that building."

RELATED: Hurricane Ian evacuation orders come into question in Lee County

The cause of the fire has not yet been determined, Eason said. Power to the city was shut down by line crews at 6 p.m. Wednesday evening, before the storm. A transmission line on the north side of the building came down, but officers aren't sure when it fell or the impact it had on the fire. 

Families living in that building lost everything. The 16 units were burned to the ground. With little notice to evacuate, people took what they could and left. 

Hollie Mead, her fiancé, and her four children say they were sheltering in the bathroom while the storm raged past them. Mead said she had a coffee table blocking her front door because it was shaking so badly. Then, a stranger came pounding on her door.

"I don't even know who this man was but he said the building is on fire and there is no help coming, you have to get out now," Mead recalled. "And that's when we realized everything changed."

Mead grabbed her kids and ran for safety. All her belongings were lost to the fire. She runs her own photography business. Her equipment was left behind as she escaped. It's all destroyed. 

RELATED: Ft. Myers Publix employee helps 3-year-old get birthday cake after Hurricane Ian hits

Mead and her family are staying with relatives while they plan out what to do next. 

The Hardee County Sheriff says 35% of the county is still without power, as of Monday morning. The biggest obstacle they're facing in response efforts is water. It's a waiting game for it to recede so that crews are able to get a better assessment of the damage done across the area.

Sheriff Vent Crawford says rescue and recovery efforts are the priority. The Peace River flooding left homes under water. As of Monday, he estimates the waters receded 5 to 6 feet. Still, there is water covering roads and flooding homes, and it makes a full damage assessment difficult. 

Even with the help the county is receiving from neighboring counties and FHP, the flooding has put some first responders in a holding pattern. 

"There are houses you can't see," Crawford said. "Individuals that are assisting me from Marion county, Pinellas, north Florida with FHP. Being familiar that there is a house down this path and it's a path and it's not a road, they don't even know it's a road there. They have GPS so they know there's a house there. They know there's a house there, but it's still under water so they don't know if the house is there or down the river."

Crawford said his goal Monday was to check every part of the county they have been unable to get to since Hurricane Ian came through. 

Because of high waters still leaving roads impassable for a lot of Hardee County, the sheriff's office is asking if you see roads blocked off, don't drive around the traffic cones. Do them a favor and turn around. 

As families assess their own damage, there is help being offered. More than two dozen National Guardsmen are stationed at Burgin Farms to give water, ice, and food to families in need. 

RELATED: Here are the points of distribution locations for counties impacted by Hurricane Ian

On Monday, more than 500 cars have come through. 

"This is what we signed up to do in the national guard, we're here to support our local communities," 1st Lt. Merrell Lefan; U.S. Army said. "We excel when it comes to providing local rescue efforts, relief, and support. A lot of my soldiers here, we keep trading in and out because we all want in on this mission. It means that much to us."

The distribution site is located on Highway 17 in Wauchula. This site will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. As for the national guardsmen here, they'll stay there day after day, until the community no longer needs their help. 

RELATED: Watch Coast Guard videos of dramatic point-of-view rescues

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