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Wilma Whips Up Evacuation on Southwestern Florida Coast

Gov. Bush urges his state not to drop its guard because of the storm's slow progress and broad possible path. Katrina and the severe 2004 season punctuate the message.

October 22, 2005|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Hurricane-weary, yet acutely hurricane-wary, Floridians hit the road Friday as authorities on the state's southwestern coast ordered a mandatory evacuation of low-lying areas threatened by Hurricane Wilma.

The storm stalled as it raked Mexico's Yucatan peninsula with 140-mph winds, postponing any landfall in Florida until Monday, forecasters said. That meant a weekend of waiting for updated weather reports, and Gov. Jeb Bush -- admitting his proclivity for impatience -- urged residents to "remain patient with the storm and one another, and not drop their guard."

"While we essentially hurry-up-and-wait for Hurricane Wilma," he said, "Floridians should take advantage of the slow pace and use this time to stock up on supplies and prepare."

Beginning at noon Friday, about 57,000 residents in parts of Naples, Marco Island, Everglades City and other vulnerable areas near Florida's Gulf of Mexico shoreline were told by Collier County officials to leave home and seek safer shelter. Many residents in this region of golf courses, gated communities and millionaire mansions had already gone.

"There has been a steady stream of cars northbound," said county emergency management spokeswoman Jaime Sarbaugh. At one point Friday, northbound traffic on Interstate 75 was backed up at least 10 miles.

"You get the sense that people this time are paying attention," Sarbaugh said.

Florida was slammed by four hurricanes in 2004 and three so far this year, she said, and residents along the state's Gulf Coast are quite aware of the damage that Hurricane Katrina did to Louisiana and Mississippi.

"When we saw the devastation it did up there, people here thought, hey, it could have been us," Sarbaugh said.

In the Florida Keys, officials said a mandatory evacuation order for mobile-home dwellers would go into effect at 6 a.m. today, but they held off issuing a similar order for all residents until Wilma's course became clearer. Tourists already had been told to get out of the archipelago.

Some of the areas along Florida's western coastline that lay in Wilma's potential path were mauled last year by Charley, a compact and highly destructive Category 4 hurricane whose wind gusts reached 180 mph.

"Everyone is really panicking now," said Eileen Haxton, a resident of Port Charlotte, a city hit hard by Charley on Aug. 13, 2004. "The town isn't really fixed up from the last one. There are messes all over. It'd be a shame to have another hurricane now."

Haxton said half of the damage Charley did to her house had been repaired. Workers were supposed to come back this week, she said, but they canceled because of the impending hurricane.

Farther south, in Collier County and the Naples area, the last direct hit from a hurricane took place 45 years ago. The county's population when Donna struck in 1960 was 15,000. Now it is more than 300,000, county spokesman John Torre said.

"Last year we had four close calls," Torre said. "Perhaps it's now our turn."

Earlier this week, Collier County officials said, residents were jamming grocery stores and lining up at gas stations to fill up their tanks. Many hadn't waited for Friday's mandatory evacuation order, heeding earlier recommendations from county officials to go.

"In the wake of Katrina and [Hurricane] Rita, people seem a little more sensitized," Sarbaugh said.

Having seen the enormous damage done by Katrina to the museums and historic properties in New Orleans and Mississippi, Ron Jamro -- director of four Collier County museums -- said he had artifacts brought from the Museum of the Everglades, housed in a restored 1928-era building in Everglades City, to the main facility in Naples, which has double concrete roofs and a steel vault.

"We thought we'd take no chances," Jamro said. The transferred holdings include tools made of seashells by the Calusa Indians, as well as a dugout canoe carved from a cypress log by Seminole Indians.

"We brought that back because, depending on the storm surge, we may need it," Jamro joked.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said Friday afternoon that they couldn't be more definitive about Wilma's future track and intensity until the hurricane cleared the Yucatan Peninsula and entered the Gulf of Mexico.

"There is a large spectrum of uncertainty with this storm," meteorologist Jamie Rhome said. "All depends on how long it spends over land on the Yucatan Peninsula." Lingering over ground, he said, would drain the hurricane's energy.

Wilma is expected to make a hard turn to the northeast sometime today as it runs into the westerlies -- strong winds generated by a large air mass that has drifted south from Canada. Forecasters said the winds could carry Wilma as a potential Category 2 hurricane, with sustained winds of 96 mph to 110 mph, anywhere in a "cone of uncertainty" they were designating from the Big Bend area of northern Florida to Cuba.

"The message here is, if you're in this cone, you need to be prepared and take the necessary steps to protect your life and property," Rhome said.

On Florida's Atlantic seaboard, where rain from Wilma's outer bands fell Friday afternoon, people were preparing for the storm's arrival. At the Home Depot in Sunrise, Fla., outside Fort Lauderdale, customers had been streaming in for three days to buy plywood sheeting to board up windows, said Paul Farella, 40, who works at the contractor desk.

Where once Floridians seemed blase about the threat posed by hurricanes, "now we're taking it serious," Farella said.

John Wilyat, 48, a construction project manager from Davie, Fla., agreed.

"My wife said after seeing Katrina that the next time she saw a [Category] 4 or 5 [hurricane] heading this way, we're hitting the road," Wilyat said.

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