YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Wealthy Haven Has Its Share of Anxious Hours

Waiting for Wilma, the residents of an upscale island off southwestern Florida fear both the approaching storm and leaving homes behind.

October 23, 2005|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MARCO ISLAND, Fla. — Her jitters showed in the trembling of her upper lip -- her bad nerves, said Olga Smith -- but the Florida grandmother was intent Saturday on harvesting the limes off a friend's tree before Hurricane Wilma could roar in and ruin them.

"We're just hoping we have something to come back to," said Smith, a 30-year resident of this exclusive barrier island community in the Gulf of Mexico.

As her friend searched in her canal-front home for her medicine and some frozen shrimp to cook for dinner, Smith filled a pair of plastic shopping bags with ripe, fragrant fruit from the Persian lime tree in the yard.

"Most people here have already left," Smith said. "Even our post office has been boarded up. I went yesterday to get my mail, and couldn't."

"I'm prepared to come back and find this leveled," her friend, Sandy Warren, 58, said of the two-story, three-bedroom house where she has lived for the last 18 years. The friends then left in Warren's red Cadillac to the inland motel where they had elected to seek shelter from the approaching storm.

"This is harrowing," said Smith, who wore a necklace with a gold charm of hands clasped in prayer. She was not the only anxious person -- as Warren drove away, she forgot to close the door of her garage. A neighbor took care of it.

For six days, forecasters have been warning that this retirement and resort haven for the well-heeled off the southwestern Florida coast could lie squarely in Wilma's crosshairs.

On Saturday, City Manager A. William Moss said he had been told that when the hurricane makes landfall in Florida -- an event expected sometime Monday -- Marco Island could be raked by winds of 100 mph and inundated by a 10-foot storm surge.

"Most of our homes are built at an elevation of 10 feet," Moss said. "Take the storm surge, add waves, and many of our homes are very vulnerable."

Two years ago, a tropical storm that didn't even merit a name dumped so much rain on Marco Island that a car across from City Hall was flooded up to its windshield, the city manager said. Consequently, he said, "we are taking Wilma very seriously."

On Friday, Collier County officials ordered everyone living on this island of 24 square miles and in other low-lying areas near the Gulf Coast to leave.

By Saturday, Moss said, 75% to 80% of the 20,000 people who live on Marco Island at this time of year had departed -- many leaving in their Mercedes or Jaguar via the hump-backed bridge that links the island with the Florida mainland.

According to Marco Island Fire Chief Michael D. Murphy, less than 10% of the island's nearly 10,000 condominium units, many of them in luxury high-rises with views of the wide, sandy beach and the Gulf of Mexico, still had people in them.

As Wilma nears, said Moss, "if it looks like some people are still here, we'll send the police out with loudspeakers, and, to the extent we can, we'll go knocking door to door."

Bruce Kretschmer, a Marco Island restaurateur whose establishment specializes in steaks and seafood, hadn't made up his mind what to do by midday Saturday. It would all hinge, the 63-year-old said, on what category on the hurricane intensity scale Wilma rated as it got closer.

"If we know it's going to be a 2 and up, we'll go," Kretschmer said. "If it's a 1, we'll stay."

Sipping from a beer to keep cool on a sultry, overcast day, Kretschmer finished boarding up his restaurant's windows as his wife, Ellen, 47, pondered how to cut the financial losses that could result from a power outage caused by Wilma. Getting ready for the storm meant, in part, stowing 150 pounds of beef in the freezer, she said.

Marco Island is mostly white, well-to-do and gray -- the average income of the year-round resident is $80,000, the average age 60, Moss said.

The assessed value of the local real estate, from the beachside condos to Mediterranean-style mansions, is $9.5 billion -- four times what it was when the municipality was incorporated in 1997.

A running joke is that there are just two Democrats on Marco Island -- one being, according to the city manager, the former senator from South Dakota and presidential candidate George S. McGovern.

At the Marco Island Marina, the 80 boats in the slips as of Saturday afternoon were probably worth $50 million, said assistant dockmaster Jim Gordon.

Using the Internet, worried owners had been frequently accessing a private webcam in recent days to zoom in on their yachts and verify that they were properly moored, he said.

"We're as ready as we're going to be," Gordon said.

The worst thing that Wilma could do, the marina employee said, was create a storm surge of more than 10 feet, which he said would be enough to detach the marina's floating docks from their pilings "and have it all float away, boats and all."

"We're just hoping for the best -- that the storm goes to the south," Gordon said.

To the south, the Florida Keys also were threatened by Wilma's uncertain advance, and authorities in the island chain Saturday ordered the mandatory evacuation of the 70,000 year-round residents.

The streets of Key West seemed quiet for a weekend, though some inhabitants of the Keys said they were waiting for more information before deciding whether to leave.

On Saturday, Tropical Storm Alpha formed southwest of Puerto Rico, making the 2005 Atlantic storm season the most active on record, said the National Hurricane Center.

Jamie Rhome, a meteorologist at the Miami center, said the storm was not expected to reach the United States.

The tropical storm was the 22nd this year and forced hurricane forecasters, who have exhausted the list of people's names prepared to designate this year's storms, to use Greek letters.

Los Angeles Times Articles