PHOTOS/VIDEO: Five years later: ‘Devastating’ Wilma hit Chokoloskee the hardest

Chokoloskee resident Helen Bryan holds a photo she took from her porch after Hurricane Wilma on October 24, 2005, in front of the same vantage point on October 20, 2010. Lexey Swall/Staff

Photo by LEXEY SWALL // Buy this photo

Chokoloskee resident Helen Bryan holds a photo she took from her porch after Hurricane Wilma on October 24, 2005, in front of the same vantage point on October 20, 2010. Lexey Swall/Staff

Wilma 2 Year Anniversary

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— Chris Ammerman keeps a weather photo of the eye of Hurricane Wilma passing over Chokoloskee by her computer at the post office.

When the Chokoloskee postmistress gives serious thought to the storm that destroyed her home, Ammerman tears up.

“It was a really bad time,” she said. “It was devastating for this community.”

Of all places affected in Collier County by Hurricane Wilma when it came ashore Oct. 24, 2005, Chokoloskee — a community of about 400 people south of Everglades City — was the hardest hit.

Ask residents what they remember about the storm and they will speak about the dead birds littering the trees along the causeway that links Chokoloskee to Everglades City. They talk about the generosity of Bill Shelburne, the owner of the Parkway Motel, who took in residents afraid to stay in their mobile homes and looking for a sturdier structure. They talk about how the homes, once built on the ground, were rebuilt on stilts to ensure there would be no more flooding in the next storm.

But mostly, they talk about how the Category 3 storm knocked them down, but didn’t knock them out.

Nina Daniels-Young, 35, stayed in Chokoloskee to ride out the storm. She said at first, her family didn’t think the storm was going to be bad. As a precaution, the family stayed at the Parkway Motel, across the street from her father’s home.

“After the front part of the storm was past, we thought the worst was over and, about midnight, we went home,” she said.

But the calm didn’t last long.

The winds in the eye wall of Wilma were unusual, according to the National Weather Service. The winds on the back side of the eye wall were as strong, if not stronger, than those of 120 mph on the front of the eye.

“This goes against the common, but sometimes erroneous, belief that the strongest winds in a hurricane are always in the right-front quadrant of the storm,” according to the Weather Service’s website.

“There was metal flying everywhere,” Nina Daniels-Young said. “I was hit in the head. My son, who was 5 at the time, was lifted off the ground. If I hadn’t been holding his hand, he might have blown away.”

* * * * *

“You could see the water coming over the sea wall ... It was like a tidal wave,” she said. “In 15 minutes, it was 4 feet deep on our street. There was a foot and a half of water in the trailer.”

Editor’s note: This is the second of three days of coverage of the effects of Hurricane Wilma striking Southwest Florida five years ago.

Daniels-Young said she and her family were in her father’s trailer when the roof began to lift up off the structure. The family went outside and got into their truck and drove back to the motel.

“There was metal flying everywhere,” she said. “I was hit in the head. My son, who was 5 at the time, was lifted off the ground. If I hadn’t been holding his hand, he might have blown away.”

The family rode out the rest of the storm in their room at the Parkway Motel. Daniels-Young said she remembers returning to her home and thinking the worst was over.

“My trailer wasn’t damaged. There were a few Poinciana limbs in the yard, but that was about it,” she said.

But a few minutes after she returned, she was leaving again.

“You could see the water coming over the sea wall ... It was like a tidal wave,” she said. “In 15 minutes, it was 4 feet deep on our street. There was a foot and a half of water in the trailer.”

Daniels-Young and her family moved to nearby Copeland for seven months while her trailer was gutted and rebuilt. Today, she said her son — now 10 — is petrified of storms.

Asked if she would leave during the next storm, Daniels-Young said she isn’t sure.

“I have never left the island for a storm,” she said. “But my dad doesn’t live here anymore. I would leave if it was a storm that was coming in through the Gulf. Definitely.”

Ammerman and her husband, Larry, left the island before Wilma hit, but came back that afternoon. Their home, which had been near the water, was destroyed and the couple found their possessions all over the island.

“People were bringing me things they had found for months,” she said.

Ammerman was at the post office not long after the storm, sweeping mud from the inside.

“My home was gone. There was nothing I could do about that,” she said. “But the post office is important in the community. If I could open it, I know it would be normal for the community.”

When Ammerman thinks about Wilma now, she thinks about the community that helped her — and each other — following the storm.

“This is a great community and we worked hard to help one another,” she said, standing in the post office with photos of community members posted on the wall behind her. “It was a very bonding time ... It amazed me how resilient people were.”

The winds in the eye wall of Wilma were unusual, according to the National Weather Service. The winds on the back side of the eye wall were as strong, if not stronger, than those of 120 mph on the front of the eye.

Five years after Wilma, the Havana Cafe next to the post office is doing a bustling business and bringing in customers with the mouth-watering smells of garlic, seafood and steak, having just opened for the stone crab season. In 2005, the cafe – owned by Carlos and Dulce Valdes – had opened its doors for the first time just before Wilma hit.

“I thought someone was trying to tell me something,” joked Dulce Valdes, 46. “It was unbelievable.”

After Wilma, the cafe had 4 inches of water and mud running throughout the restaurant, said Carlos Valdes, 50.

“Everything was covered in mud. The whole town,” he said. “We didn’t have any major damage. But business had just gotten good.”

Although the flow of tourists to the community slowed, Dulce Valdes said the restaurant benefited from the FEMA workers, volunteers and members of the community who came to Chokoloskee to help. Ammerman, who has lived permanently in the community since 1993, believes Chokoloskee also benefited because Wilma hit Florida after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans a month before.

“FEMA wasn’t going to get this wrong,” she said of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was criticized after Katrina for failing to respond in a timely manner.

At the Chokoloskee Church of God, more than 50 residents filed into the church for recent Sunday services and to hear Pastor Morris Dantin, 73, preach about the “gifts of the Holy Spirit of God.”

The Chokoloskee Church of God was flooded during Wilma and its pews and carpet had to be replaced. The annex needed roof repairs and the ceiling had to be redone, as well as some of the drywall. But while the church needed some rehabilitation — and would take eight months to be “put back together” — its members and its location was a source of comfort to the community, handing out supplies and money to residents in need, Dantin said.

“So many people came out to lend a hand,” he said. “We had help from the Church of God, (preacher) Pat Robertson’s group and a church on Marco (Island) brought all types of supplies.”

Dantin recalls that many residents were despondent after the storm.

“People came home with mud on the floor. Their livelihood was crab and they didn’t know where the money was going to come from,” he said. “That’s where the church came in.”

Dantin said Wilma’s aftermath was a lesson in people helping others.

“We could not have done this by ourselves,” he said. “It had to be the grace of God in our lives.”

Judy Caseley, a local boat captain, stayed in her home during Wilma. She recalls going out to see the damage after the storm blew past.

“There were mobile homes flipped over, boats all over the place,” she said.

Caseley, who moved to the island 17 years ago, bought a boat before she ever had a home in Chokoloskee. A teacher for several years at Everglades City School, she decided to start a boat-tour business — in summer 2005.

“I had put a lot of money into advertising and was getting photographers out on the boat and birders,” she said. “The one thing about Wilma is that while it killed off some of the wildlife, it has come back stronger than ever.”

Caseley said it took a year before the dock where she kept her boat was replaced and said the storm really hurt her new business.

“It’s never really come back to what it was,” she said. “First it was Wilma and then it was the freeze and the oil in the Gulf.”

Caseley said after Wilma, it was like starting over with nothing. But, she said, for a small place like Chokoloskee, help came quickly.

“Everyone pulled together,” she said. “Usually, we’re the ones left behind.”

Ammerman believes it took the community a year or so to get back to normal. She remembers Dumpsters placed around the community to help people clean up debris.

“We joked that the last time the community looked like this was after (1960 Hurricane) Donna,” she said. “We had not seen the damage we had in Donna until Wilma. I hope it will be another 40 years before we have a storm like Wilma.”

Dantin hopes it’s more like never.

“I hope we never have a storm like Wilma again,” he said with a chuckle.

CLICK HERE FOR RELATED STORY PHOTOS Historic Everglades City Hall a town bedrock after Wilma repairs

CLICK HERE FOR RELATED STORY Five years after Hurricane Wilma hit, insurers getting new claims, lawsuits

CLICK HERE FOR RELATED STORY Five years later: Bids going out to rebuild Wilma-damaged Farmers' Market

Storm.......Year....Pressure....Mph....Category....Landfall

Katrina ...2005.....920 mb......126..........3...........Louisiana

Andrew...1992......922 mb......167..........5..........South Florida

Donna....1960.......930 mb......128.........3..........Keys/Naples

Charley...2004......941 mb......150..........4..........Cayo Costa

Wilma.....2005.......950 mb.....120..........3..........Cape Romano

Source: National Hurricane Center

__ Connect with reporter Katherine Albers at www.naplesnews.com/staff/katherine-albers/.

© 2010 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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