In Wilma's wake, sighs of relief

Two Florida towns directly in hurricane's path fared better than predicted.

This was supposed to be ground zero. But you'd never know it, talking to residents of this remote, low-lying community at the northern edge of Everglades National Park.

Dead in the path of hurricane Wilma, with a predicted 12- to 18-foot thrust of seawater that would have swamped many homes to their roofs, tiny Everglades City instead saw the storm surge stop at about five feet. That was enough to flood the city's streets - up to waist-deep in parts - but not enough to rip homes from their foundations.

As the southern third of Florida struggled to clean up after Monday's Category 3 storm, which was blamed for at least six fatalities, knocked out power for some 6 million residents, and caused billions of dollars of property damage, residents of Everglades City and nearby Chokoloskee expressed gratitude and surprise that the hurricane hadn't been more destructive. Nowhere was the risk to human life greater than here.

"Knowing the devastation that could have happened here, I feel we are very, very blessed," says Leah Brack, a Collier County deputy sheriff.

The level of concern was underscored by an array of search-and-rescue forces deployed within hours after the storm along State Road 29, the only road in or out of town. They included Zodiac boats, airboats, and even swamp buggies - all poised to be pressed into action.

"I was really afraid to come back to see what was left," says LouAnn Tankersley, who evacuated with her husband, daughter, and four dogs. "We just put a brand-new kitchen in and new appliances."

By late Monday afternoon, the floodwaters in Everglades City were continuing to recede with the falling tide. And both evacuees and those who stayed behind began to assess the damage.

Bill and Denise Horvat thought about evacuating, but with two parrots and a boat to protect, they never got around to it. Early Monday morning, Bill got the sense that they might have made a mistake by staying. Outside his window, he saw his white fish box float by. "We live a block from the river and it was just flowing through our yard," he says.

The Horvats lost power around 2 a.m. With no batteries or radio, they couldn't monitor the storm, or hear warnings of forecasters and others.

Across the island, David George had plenty of information about the storm. The Captain's Table Hotel, which he manages, was full of news reporters seeking a front-row seat to a dramatic story. Mr. George's front-row seat was on the hotel's screened-in porch. "The word is 'frightening,' " he says. Hurricane Wilma was largely a wind event until the eye of the storm arrived. The second half of the storm brought much higher winds and the flood, he says. "From the west of the island to the east, it took about five minutes to get up to five feet. I've never seen that before."

The deluge carried with it anything that wasn't nailed or tied down. "As it rose, you are thinking: 'Is it stopping? Is it stop-ping?' " George says.

The violent backside of the storm hit after dawn. "That was actually the most frightening because you can see the things it was pulling up - the trees, the porches, the decks," he says. "It took out palm trees like they were matchsticks. Things that didn't bend, broke."

The hurricane changed his contingency planning. "Next time, it's a Category 3, I'm out of here," he says.

LouAnn and Jim Tankersley have lived in the area for six years but they had never experienced a hurricane. So when the evacuation order came, they loaded up their van and left Sunday night.

Their plan was to drive to Ocala, Fla., sleep in the van, then drive home after the storm. All they knew during that long drive back was the prediction of an 18-foot storm surge. They returned at noon but rescue workers wouldn't let them into the city until 2 p.m.

"I'm just so pleased to see my house. We've worked so hard on it," LouAnn says. At her feet are tiny fish in a roadside puddle near her house.

The river came up, but not in their home. There was no wind damage and the only impact from the storm is the loss of a tree they wanted removed anyway.

Dan Mitchell, longtime Chokoloskee resident, says rising water came within two feet of entering his home. "I was getting a little nervous when the tide was coming in," Mr. Mitchell says.

Mitchell and his wife, Hazel, say a large number of mobile homes on Chokoloskee island were damaged or destroyed by high winds and rising water. "We fared really good," Hazel says, "but I know there's a lot of devastation" in Chokoloskee.

Dan adds: "There are a lot of trailers that look like a bomb went off."

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