Tom Hanson: Hurricane Wilma leaves mark on Chokoloskee


— There’s an empty spot, where a home once sat, on the eastern tip of Chokoloskee. There’s a similar spot in Chris Ammerman’s heart.

A pile of rocks mark the breathtaking view of Chokoloskee Bay. The tears rolling down Ammerman’s cheeks reveal the painful memory of Hurricane Wilma.

The thick brown mud has been cleaned up. The waist-high waterlines on homes have disappeared. The grass is growing after no one thought it would. A year later, Chokoloskee and many of its people have rebounded.

“It looked like a war zone for a long time,” Ammerman said. “The island is coming back very much the same except where we are. The people are so resilient here. It’s amazing.”

Yet, Ammerman still can’t talk about Wilma’s destruction without wiping her eyes.

A weather radar picture from the morning of Oct. 24, 2005, is posted on the desk at the town’s tiny post office where she’s the postmaster. The color-enhanced photo shows Wilma’s eye passing directly over Chokoloskee. As she glances at the photo, her eyes fill again.

Ammerman doesn’t need a reminder. Her home of 16 years once stood on the pile of rocks. Wilma’s 100 mph winds and unexpected backside tidal surge washed away her mobile home. The storm displaced the contents across the island.

Rosary beads lay beneath vibrant stalks of sunflowers a few feet from where her home once stood. Larry Ammerman says the rosary beads most likely belong to his wife. Over the past year, the Ammermans have found pictures, a diary and dishes. Many of the items have been brought to Chris Ammerman at the post office. She proudly displays pictures of residents on the back wall. She’s the unofficial mayor of Chokoloskee.

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Chris Ammerman can’t imagine living anywhere else. The Ammermans have moved into another mobile home on the island. It sits on a canal. But it doesn’t have the same view. It doesn’t have the same feel.

“We’re not home,” Chris Ammerman said. “It’s not the same. For 16 years we were blessed. The trailer wasn’t much. It was old and we were only renting, but it was our home.”

The Ammermans purchased a new mobile home to put on the old site. But they faced another storm — called the Collier County permitting process. Due to flood zone changes, the county wanted the new trailer put on stilts.

Despite the destruction and displacement, Chris Ammerman feels that Wilma’s wrath made the island and its people stronger.

“It was a horrible experience but it was a bonding experience,” she said. “It gave us a great sense of community. Everyone worked together and we are coming back.”

Earlier this year, Chokoloskee received a scare from Tropical Storm Ernesto. Ammerman said because of Wilma the islanders paid more attention. They had the needed supplies. They prepared for the worst.

“Last year when Wilma came, everyone kind of blew it off,” Ammerman said. “This year they took it a lot more seriously.”

Hurricanes are life-changing. Look at the spot marked by a pile of rocks on Chokoloskee Bay or listen to the emptiness in Ammerman’s voice. Wilma left an everlasting mark.

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E-mail Tom Hanson at

© 2006 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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