The week that Wilma came to town: A look back

By daybreak along the Naples beaches, the storm-watchers soaked up the last hours of the calm on the Gulf of Mexico.

By noon, from Marco Island to Bonita Springs, windows were shuttered, bathtubs filled and last-second checks on gas, e-mail and family and friends were made.

By nightfall, streets were nearly deserted.

Alejandro Milkes of Naples looks over the destruction left by Hurricane Wilma at a dock in Isle of Capri, Florida, Monday afternoon, October 24, 2005.  Several yachts were damaged or destroyed at the dock by the hurricane.

Photo by Darron R. Silva, Naples Daily News

Alejandro Milkes of Naples looks over the destruction left by Hurricane Wilma at a dock in Isle of Capri, Florida, Monday afternoon, October 24, 2005. Several yachts were damaged or destroyed at the dock by the hurricane.

Those who stayed behind awaited what loomed off the Southwest Florida coast.

Wilma.

Hurricane Wilma was headed — with a vengeance — to a place where for nearly five decades, hurricanes had brushed by or grazed a bit, but shied away from a full-on attack.

Collier County, tucked away at Florida's tip, had been quietly in its own protective zone. Always getting ready, but never getting hit.

On Oct. 24, that would change.

It would start the week that was Wilma's.

The days of waiting

Fights broke out at gas stations where lines formed before Wilma came to town. Hardware and home improvement stores reported the usual last-minute runs on generators, plywood and batteries.

Roads clogged with people and their pets heading north on Interstate 75, which backed up bumper-to-bumper at times. Hotel reservations made "just in case" were now logged as far north as Georgia.

Whether it was memories and images of Hurricane Charley in 2004 or the coming of Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans in August, this was serious storm business.

For a week or more, emergency managers in Southwest Florida watched as Wilma headed straight on a track for Naples. For two days, Wilma sat over Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, readying her entry into the Gulf.

Lee County, too, made ready for the hurricane. Remembrances were fresh of Charley and that hurricane's leveling of Fort Myers Beach, Pine Island, Sanibel and Captiva.

Germain Arena filled with thousands as Bonita Springs and south Lee County residents took to the safety of the Estero shelter.

Collier emergency managers warned people to evacuate. West and south of U.S. 41, Marco Island, Goodland, Everglades City, Chokoloskee and Plantation Island were in the Wilma bullseye.

"All of Collier County is still at risk," Collier emergency management coordinator Jim von Rinteln said.

He said it simply. And that's when the reality set in.

There would be no lucky streak to count on this time. The computer models showed the track and landfall was predicted at Naples and then later — in the waiting for Wilma period — at Marco Island or points south.

Storm surge was predicted to be 7 feet, maybe higher. Streets would be under feet of water. Homes would be swallowed up in the surge.

"Run from water. Hide from wind," emergency managers warned with finality.

Collier Sheriff Don Hunter asked for a pre-hurricane curfew. Keep everyone inside before the storm to keep the mandatory evacuation area clear and as a way to persuade people to leave. More deputies and more police officers would be on patrol, the sheriff promised.

He wanted to protect property, but he was hoping to save lives.

Two days before Wilma, firefighters scoured East Naples mobile home parks, asking people to leave.

If they stayed, they were on their own, the residents were told.

Some said God would protect them and they didn't even consider leaving. Others had reservations at local hotels or were joining friends farther inland because they didn't want to chance their lives.

Around the county, some said sad goodbyes to their pets which were being picked up for safe keeping at Domestic Animal Services while their owners, some of them ill or older residents, sought safety in a county shelter where power was promised.

Neighbors checked on neighbors. Strangers wished each other luck.

As the mobile home parks emptied, the shelters filled.

In Immokalee, the flimsiest of trailers were left behind by residents scared that they'd die if they stayed home. Growers worried that their entire crops would be underwater at the next sunrise.

One brave — or foolhardy — sailor decided to take refuge in a "hurricane hole," an inlet off Naples Bay.

And there was an invasion of another kind.

News crews from across the nation, their telltale 5-gallon gas containers strapped atop their sport utility vehicles, sought the most Neapolitan of backdrops, from the Naples Pier, to Tin City to the beaches.

Hurricane-fatigued residents spent the final hours in front of televisions.

Waiting would be the hardest part.

Knocking on the door

Most people in Collier County got a bit of rest before the winds howled, the banyan trees toppled and Wilma laid a wallop on the Naples area.

But not much.

With local meteorologists as their guides, Southwest Floridians listened and waited as Wilma prepared to slip ashore. Even if they couldn't see the maps or the people explaining what was on them, radio listeners got blow-by-blow accounts of Wilma's coming.

Unfortunately, each prediction came true.

3 a.m. Monday: the bands were coming ashore and power started disappearing. The popping of transformers acted as Wilma alarms as the outer bands of the storm came in a hurry.

Judy Borgia is distraught as she looks over the damage done by Hurricane Wilma to the mobile home of her nephew, Bubba Dennison, in East Naples, Florida, Monday morning, October 24, 2005.  The hurricane tore apart the porch and a shed at the home in Holiday Manor Trailer Park.

Photo by Darron R. Silva, Naples Daily News

Judy Borgia is distraught as she looks over the damage done by Hurricane Wilma to the mobile home of her nephew, Bubba Dennison, in East Naples, Florida, Monday morning, October 24, 2005. The hurricane tore apart the porch and a shed at the home in Holiday Manor Trailer Park.

3:15 a.m.: power flickered in parts of Collier County and south Lee County. For some, it was the last power they'd see for days or weeks.

4 a.m.: screeching winds were heard around the county. Rain came in squalls, trees were snapping.

5 a.m.: the eye of the storm was approaching Marco Island and Naples.

Fifteen minutes later, Collier emergency managers reported that the eyewall of the storm was 55 miles southwest of Naples. It will speed over Marco Island as it makes landfall at Cape Romano, leaving destruction to the north and south.

5:45 a.m.: the eye of Hurricane Wilma approached Marco Island and Everglades City.

6:30 a.m.: Wilma made landfall at Cape Romano, south of Marco Island.

By daybreak, the pounding continued.

Now with daylight, the crash of falling trees and the snapping of limbs was even more dramatic because it was visible.

The back side would be the worst. Its intensity made even storm veterans think twice about riding out the hurricane next time.

"It sounded like a lion roaring," said 44-year-old Lorraine Burgess of Copeland who rode out the storm in Everglades City.

At 8:30 a.m, a 125 mph wind gust was reported at the Collier County Emergency Operations Center in East Naples.

With top speeds of 125 mph and an eyewall around 70 miles wide, Hurricane Wilma kept her blustery attack on. Wilma moved briskly at 22 mph, but caused little storm surge.

As the skies cleared, the winds whirled.

Running smack into a cold front, the temperature dropped a dozen degrees as Wilma traveled across the state and into the Atlantic Ocean. As the winds still swirled, the cool air set in and Wilma's weather grabbed a spot in the history books.

By mid-morning, people were venturing outdoors.

Around Southwest Florida, Wilma had brought her Category 3 game to town.

Wilma wasn't Donna

Amid the felled banyans and power lines and the roof-shingle-carpeted yards, came the first signs of post-Wilma life.

Police officers and sheriff's deputies materialized in patrol cars that blocked intersections. Law officers tried to control intersections as the brave — and sometimes the bold — ventured out.

The city of Naples was sealed off at every major artery leading into town. No good reason, then no entry, people were told.

All over Southwest Florida, tree limbs littered roads. Power lines swung from poles.

Even with storm shutters in place, wind damage from Hurricane Wilma is evident in this North Gordon Drive condominium building in Naples Tuesday, the day after Hurricane Wilma slammed into Southwest Florida.

Photo by MICHEL FORTIER, Naples Daily News

Even with storm shutters in place, wind damage from Hurricane Wilma is evident in this North Gordon Drive condominium building in Naples Tuesday, the day after Hurricane Wilma slammed into Southwest Florida.

Every neighborhood had its damage report.

But throughout the county, the news was the same: Wilma was no Donna.

In 1960, storm surge from Hurricane Donna turned Collier County into a disaster area. Donna remained "the big one."

This time, Cape Romano was Ground Zero for landfall.

The reports flowed in:

Naples: The feared storm surge was minimal. The Pier was still standing. Dozens of huge banyan trees, including the gigantic one at City Hall, blocked the roads they had once lined. Condos along Gulf Shore Boulevard North now sported the blown-out window look.

Marco Island: Pool cages had collapsed or bent. Slices of tin roofs were tossed in parking lots or wrapped tightly around tree trunks. Mangroves were thinned. Streets flooded.

Everglades City/Chokoloskee/Plantation Island: Water surrounded Everglades City Hall. Tornadoes were spawned in Copeland. Water surged up to 8 feet. Trailers were trashed and people were left homeless in Chokoloskee, the hardest hit area in southern Collier County.

Immokalee: Vegetable and citrus crops were destroyed. Residents, including many of the migrant farmworkers who had just arrived for work, were left homeless, jobless and hungry. Semi-trailers, many containing food, were tossed to the side of the road. Dozens who stayed in their flimsy trailers tried in vain, at the last minute, to get into shelters.

North Naples: A Pelican Bay condo lost sheeting on more than six floors and was evacuated. Uprooted trees leaned on homes. Streets and yards were waterlogged. A dolphin, aptly named Wilma, was washed ashore and rescued.

Golden Gate/Golden Gate Estates: Trees blocked driveways or toppled onto cars. Palm fronds were buried feet deep in some yards. Shopping centers flooded.

Bonita Springs: Mobile home parks took the brunt of the hurricane force winds. Metal roofs, lanais and carports were ripped away. Gas station canopies were sent flying. And, like everywhere, power was out.

Based on early reports, three people had died. A 65-year-old woman was killed when her home collapsed onto her in Immokalee. Two more died of medical conditions.

Chainsaws in hand, people cleared their roads, moved downed trees off homes and assessed the damage in their neighborhoods. Armed with cameras, they photographed everything.

In Bonita Springs, where Wilma's fast pace saved them from the worst of the storm, it was the flip side of Charley. This time, the damage in Lee County paled and Mayor Jay Arend looked on the bright side.

"We can make paradise look like paradise again," Arend said. "In one week, it will be back to its old self in terms of having everything cleaned up."

Others made calls to family, friends and insurance companies.

And nearly everyone, 94 percent of Collier County residents, by early count, waited for power.

The best news came from the blue skies and temperatures in the 50s, an October blessing, spread over Southwest Florida.

A day without

What Wilma wrought became clearer on Tuesday.

And what didn't get delivered after Wilma's departure was more obvious.

No power. No water. No phones, cellular or landline. No cable television.

For some seeking food, water or ice, the long lines were just that, with no supplies at the end.

Some areas would get electricity restored by Monday night. Others never lost their lights, their phones or their cable.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush consoles Michele Sobczak of Grand Rapids, Mich., at the Palmetto Ridge High School special needs hurricane shelter Monday afternoon. Sobczak just moved to the area just before Hurricane Wilma struck Southwest Florida, Monday morning, October 24. The high school outside Naples, Fla., served as both a regular and special needs shelter.

Photo by DAVID AHNTHOLZ, Naples Daily News

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush consoles Michele Sobczak of Grand Rapids, Mich., at the Palmetto Ridge High School special needs hurricane shelter Monday afternoon. Sobczak just moved to the area just before Hurricane Wilma struck Southwest Florida, Monday morning, October 24. The high school outside Naples, Fla., served as both a regular and special needs shelter.

Much of Naples was without water pressure. Around sundown Tuesday, when all of the sprinklers within the city's water system automatically turned on, the city lost pressure.

Conserve water, community leaders begged.

With 500 pumping stations without power, there was danger of a sanitary sewer system overflow.

By the end of the day, 70 percent of Collier County didn't have power. Another 125,000 Sprint telephone customers were without service. Cellular service remained spotty.

In Lee County, nearly 195,000 people were without electricity.

Debris and flooding were slowing down crews.

In Immokalee, a dozen residents fled a collapsing roof. They tried to help 67-year-old Mary E. Howell at Santos Corners flop house where she had a room. The roof blew in and the rain poured down and no one could help her.

Food was scarce in the farming community. The hungry lined up when they heard promises of food.

"These are migrant workers," Collier sheriff's Lt. Mike Dolan said. "They come with knapsacks of clothing. They work today and eat tonight. We need to get them fed."

Volunteer organizations brought some food, but it was running out fast.

False television reports of supplies showing up in East Naples at noon brought out 1,000 people, many with small children. Miles of cars lined up to get to Barron Collier High, where more supplies were promised. More than two hours later, a truck pulled up with water where the National Guard was poised to distribute supplies.

No ice and no food.

Collier emergency managers said the supplies, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were held up in inland counties.

The city of Naples lockdown ended.

School was out for the week.

The curfew remained in place.

The stark reality

The headlines heralded some not-so-good news:

"Collier's damage could top $1 billion"

"Naples' water woes have no end in sight"

"State runs short of aid but vows to do better"

Pastor Brian Pierce with Taking it to the Streets Ministries in St. Petersburg prays before serving food to the residents of Farm Workers Village in Immokalee on Wednesday.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Daily News

Pastor Brian Pierce with Taking it to the Streets Ministries in St. Petersburg prays before serving food to the residents of Farm Workers Village in Immokalee on Wednesday.

The worst of the damage, as tallied by Collier County: Riviera Golf Estates, Naples Estates, Riverwood/Henderson Creek, Hitching Post, Gilford Acres, Moorhead Manor, St. Claire Shores/High Pines and Silver Lakes, all in East Naples.

And Naples was being passed over by President Bush. Instead, he was headed to Miami to tour Wilma's aftermath.

Insurance companies set up at the East Naples Wal-Mart where residents sought help. In tents and from behind tables, the insurance teams were prepared to get claims moving.

The debris chores continued in what was called an unprecedented-size cleanup for the county.

But good news came out of Immokalee and Farmworkers Village where water drained and food arrived for the hungry. Local groups, hearing of their plight, arrived to feed the needy.

On the Isles of Capri, residents waited for power and were told that it might not come back until mid-November because the main source was destroyed by Wilma. Helicopters might have to do the heavy lifting over the swamp lands.

"We're forgotten," resident Laurie Rose said.

Elsewhere, more lights were turned on and more phone lines had dial tones. Slowly.

The return to normal was under way.

The survivors

More survivor tales emerged.

Riviera Golf Estates was Wilma-ravaged.

The East Naples mobile home park, many of its residents still up North, came in first place on the list of most damage from the hurricane in the Naples area.

"I didn't think they were alive," Janet Kuers said as she looked over at her neighbor's now shell of a mobile home. "I had to wade through ankle-deep water to get in there. Everything was falling. I had to keep jumping back, because the metal pieces kept falling down on my head."

Kuers found her neighbors, Carroll and Betty Heverin, alive and survivors of the storm.

The Collier County death toll reached five, with one man found floating face down in a retention pond in North Naples and a man working to repair a gate crushed to death.

More than 53,000 FPL customers were still without power in coastal and inland Naples. Another 5,700 or 35 percent of Immokalee were powerless.

In the city of Naples, water was restored to about 90 percent of customers.

Federal Emergency Management Agency teams moved through Collier County neighborhoods, trying to get information to people who wanted to register for help.

The countywide curfew was scaled back an hour to 11 p.m. and running through 6 a.m.

So far, the Sheriff's Office had made 150 curfew violation arrests.

The power struggle

Four days later.

The curfew was lifted.

The death toll grew to seven, the latest including a 68-year-old woman's death from a generator found running inside a Naples home and a 64-year-old man who died from a heart attack while working in his yard.

Some spirits were lifted as power returned to parts of Southwest Florida. Others were teased.

Virginia D'Amore of Naples tries to escape the waves rolling onto the beach while shooting video and photos of the Naples Pier at the Broad Avenue beach access in Naples, following Hurricane Wilma landfall Monday morning, October 24. D'Amore said she also came out to shoot the pier following Hurricane Charley but noted visibility was much better following Wilma. Water completely covered the beaches in Naples following the Category 3 hurricane.

Photo by DAVID AHNTHOLZ, Naples Daily News

Virginia D'Amore of Naples tries to escape the waves rolling onto the beach while shooting video and photos of the Naples Pier at the Broad Avenue beach access in Naples, following Hurricane Wilma landfall Monday morning, October 24. D'Amore said she also came out to shoot the pier following Hurricane Charley but noted visibility was much better following Wilma. Water completely covered the beaches in Naples following the Category 3 hurricane.

On Marco Island, the power that was restored was taken away — again.

Salt deposits on power lines caused Lee County Electrical Cooperative's power system to fail. All 18,450 customers lost power, but crews were working into the night to turn the lights back on.

By afternoon, Florida Power and Light had restored power to 77 percent of its customers in Lee County, while Collier County whittled its powerless down to 20 percent.

In Naples, the water system was 100 percent charged up as of Thursday night, but because pipes were ripped out of the ground, some homes in the Moorings still didn't have water.

In Immokalee, the crop devastation was climbing. Losses could total a half billion dollars.

"It's an agriculture disaster," said Gene McAvoy, a regional vegetable agent with the Hendry County extension office in LaBelle. "It could not have come at a worse time if you planned it."

Besides tomatoes, the region's fall vegetable crop includes eggplant, cucumbers, peppers and squash. As the storm approached, there were more than 15,000 acres of vegetable plants in the ground in Southwest Florida worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Immokalee got a boost from Edgerrin James, Indianapolis Colts running back — and hometown hero — who brought a moving fan full of food to hungry residents.

The bad news came as the school hurricane break was about to be over for thousands of Collier County school children. With six days off from school, Collier County students were waiting to learn if their school year would get longer because of Wilma's stopover.

The work week ended with a sigh of relief about a storm far, far away.

Beta, one of Wilma's successors in the line of hurricanes this season, sped toward Central America.

A week that was

A week after Collier County residents geared up for the worst of Wilma, the power loss hangover hung on.

With around 20,000 customers still lacking electricity, FPL crews mapped out the worst spots, near U.S. 41 North and U.S. 41 East, the south side of Davis Boulevard and selected areas of the city of Naples. Marco Island, once with power then without it, was back in the "on" column Saturday.

Frustrated residents were met with unwelcome news about Nov. 8 and 10 deadlines for having their service restored. Or maybe sooner they were told.

College football junkies were without cable television in some spots. About 35 percent of Comcast subscribers were without service.

The city of Naples water system was nearly fixed, although workers were still trying to restore service to the Moorings area where trees busted water lines. Boiling water was still the norm in the city's zip code.

And the blue tarps were coming.

The tarps, which covered roofs all over Charlotte County after Hurricane Charley, were once again the weather rage as residents with less than 50 percent damage to their homes began registering with the county.

But good works were everywhere in Collier County.

Volunteers bearing spaghetti or ladling stew still sought out those who needed help, although the numbers of the needy were falling.

Stationed at the Naples Town Centre in East Naples on Saturday afternoon, American Red Cross volunteer Sue Schinderle said even though the people in need have dwindled, there were still some who needed help.

"We're here to help people. And we have no restrictions. If you need 20 meals, we will give you 20 meals. Anyone who asks gets fed," she said.

Epilogue

Naples' streets, once shaded by great banyans, will never be the same.

Veteran Chokoloskee and Everglades City hurricane survivors might change their attitudes about staying down south next season.

And with the coming of Wilma, even Naples humor about the area's once seemingly protected spot — watched over by a higher power with real estate interests — has gotten a bit of a facelift.

The old joke: God has a condo in Naples, so it's safe here.

The new joke: God must have flipped his condo.

© 2005 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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