Marco Island had 45 years to prepare between its last direct-hit hurricane (Donna, 1960) and its latest (Wilma, 2005). Wilma apparently didn't want to disappoint this barrier island community, but the storm did not deal a lethal blow, as many residents and officials had feared.
The storm arrived as a Category 3 with winds well over 100 mph that sent a shrieking whine across the island. The eye passed directly overhead just after 6 a.m., Monday, and lasted about an hour. Amid the calm, police and fire officials surveyed the island's mostly deserted streets. They found little damage -- a few downed trees, shingles displaced in patches, a couple of fallen power lines -- and hopes began to run high.
Although I've lived in Florida for roughly 25 years -- I'm also roughly 25 years old -- I had never been in the eye of a strong hurricane. ( I did get to glimpse Hurricane Jeanne's weakening eye over Winter Haven last year.) It was strange. If I had no knowledge that a hurricane was on top of us, I would have just thought it was a soggy night. A slight drizzle fell on and off. There was very little wind, sometimes none at all. The air felt moist. It was still dark out so I can't say I saw the sunshine. With power cut across the island, it was "as black as the inside of a cow on a moonless night," as they say in the South. A man back at the fire station radioed the driver of the SUV I was riding in, Marco Police Chief Roger Reinke, on the storm's progression, letting us know how much time we had left. When Reinke learned we had 10 minutes to spare, we retreated to the shuttered station.
Then, the worst came. Blowing harder than ever, Wilma pounded Marco for another two hours. Exhausted, I tried sleeping. My feet propped up in a swivel desk chair, I nodded on and off as the storm rattled the walls ever so slightly and filled the room with a muffled roar.
When authorities emerged, they found about 75 percent of the structures were damaged, though most of it was minor. Pool cages were the first to go. Next were windows in the upper stories of condominiums along the beach. It was rare to come across signficant damage to any home -- only a couple fit that description. The worst we saw was one home on the western side of the island that had its rear deck -- and part of the rear half of the two-story house -- cave in. Another home saw its wooden backyard deck blown in the air, over the roof and deposited in the front yard, leaning against the facade like a billboard. As for the storm surge, it was a nonfactor for the most part. The puddles and ponds that formed on roads were mostly attributable to water that dropped from the sky. Electricity was out all day Monday and only began to reappear Tuesday.
On Goodland, a small fishing village southeast of Marco, damage was more severe. Sailboats that had been placed in a holding area on land at Calusa Bay Marina tipped onto one another. Dozens of mobile homes looked like they were leaking pink fiberglass insulation, but only one mobile unit appeared to have been dealt severe damage.
In green chalk, someone had written in large letters "Wilma" and incscribed an austere, but artistic, hurricane below that in the middle of an intersection in Goodland. Maybe it was done to ward off the hurricane. If so, it worked. Mostly.