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WILMA'S DESTRUCTIVE PATH

Gulf Coast Fishing Village Is Underwater but Still Alive

In Everglades City, Fla., a remote town of 500, Wilma brings memories of Hurricane Donna in 1960. But things could have been a lot worse.

October 25, 2005|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

EVERGLADES CITY, Fla. — Karen Haley came back Monday not by car but on a neighbor's airboat, skimming along the brackish water that had invaded this Gulf Coast fishing village, fearful that her home might be gone.

"What went through my mind was, 'Oh my God, I don't have a house left,' " said the interior designer, 49. The floodwaters in the streets had risen waist-high, and strong gusts from the tail end of Hurricane Wilma, which had sent the storm surge rolling in, kicked up foam-flecked whitecaps. Seagulls wheeled overhead.

There was so much water in the streets of Everglades City that the airboat was able to deposit Haley and her husband, Duncan, at their front door, 30 feet from the Barron River. The house, made of Dade County pine and cypress bead-board, among dwellings built during the 1920s for people working on the first highway to link Tampa and Miami, had survived Wilma intact, she said.

Another 6 or 8 inches of water, Haley said, and the home she had spent four years restoring and filling with antique furniture and Everglades-themed art would have been inundated.

"I cried when we pulled up to the house," Haley said. "I was like, 'Praise, praise God.' "

Water has made the fortune of Everglades City, where fishermen harvest most of Collier County's 600,000-pound annual stone crab claw take, and the risk of storms has helped keep it a village of about 500 people.

Donna, the last hurricane to score a direct hit on Collier County in 1960, flooded the town and convinced authorities to move the county seat north. "Naples became the boomtown," said JoNell Modys, a county tourism official.

But the 3 to 5 feet of water that covered most of this city for a time Monday before beginning to recede was exceptional. Riding high atop a military surplus truck that had been converted to combat brush fires in the Everglades, firefighter Robert Campbell, 34, drank a Diet Pepsi and looked over the flooding, dotted by double-wide trailers on blocks and other structures, that seemed to extend in all directions.

"The last time it was this high was Donna," the firefighter said. Until Monday, Everglades City had dodged another direct hit from a hurricane.

Wilma's storm surge soaked a Laundromat, lapped at the hubcaps on a Buick sedan and covered the parking lot of the Gator Express gas station. Six inches of seawater seeped into the fire station.

On Copeland Avenue, the firetruck carrying Campbell passed a resident pulling a canoe laden with two jerrycans. An airboat skimmed down Collier Boulevard, bearing a photographer snapping pictures. Waves lapped at the doorsills of the Seaboard Villas, a row of tidy white homes.

Although more than half of Everglades City's residents had refused to heed mandatory evacuation orders, no deaths or injuries were reported, said Collier County Sheriff's Capt. Al Beatty. Likewise, on nearby Plantation and Chokoloskee islands, no one who chose to ride the hurricane out at home was reported hurt.

"It's a lot better than initially thought," Beatty said. But he cautioned, "We don't know the extent of the damage yet."

Although Wilma was soggy news for Everglades City, the effects could have been far worse, said Ben Nelson, state meteorologist with the Florida Division of Emergency Management. The maximum storm surge generated by Wilma seemed to have occurred to the south, in Monroe County, in an unpopulated mainland area, Nelson said.

"We were flirting with disaster," Nelson said. "A deviation of Wilma 20 miles to the north would have put large populated areas underwater," which could have included Naples and Marco Island.

Shannon Mitchell, 29, is an Everglades City resident who did not evacuate. Wilma blew the door off the post office where her mother-in-law is postmaster, she said. Her house, said Mitchell, a part-time postal clerk, was fine, only losing a strip of aluminum siding. But her neighbor's home is uninhabitable, she said.

Mitchell, 29, said she slept through most of the hurricane but woke up when the wind began to howl, and told her husband, Wesley, 27, a cook, that she was scared. She managed to go back to sleep, she said, and napped for an hour. When she awoke, children were fetching canoes to paddle through the streets.

How much of Everglades City is underwater? asked reporters who reached the town after sheriff's deputies lifted a roadblock.

"All of it," Mitchell said. "Pretty much all of it."

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