As a New England native, I’ve lived through a number of ice storms, but nothing so terrifying as Hurricane Wilma, which struck Florida four years ago this weekend in the fall of 2005.
I’d already been introduced to Florida’s destructive potential. I first moved to the state, to a town just west of Fort Lauderdale, in August of 2004, right before four storms hit within a period of a month or so–Charley (which did most of its damage on the West Florida coast), Frances, Ivan (which ripped apart Grand Cayman Island and was more of an Alabama storm than a Florida one), and Jeanne. Frances and Jeanne hit land at almost the exact same place, near Stuart, halfway up the coast. We lost power for a short spell owing to Frances and Jeanne. I had to wonder, loudly, why anyone would willingly live in that state, but I was following a girlfriend at the time, so what did I know?
Wilma was far more destructive. By then, in the dubiously record-setting hurricane year of 2005, we (the dog, the girlfriend, and myself) had moved north a bit into Palm Beach County, to the infamously betitted city of Boca Raton. Hurricane Katrina had already done its thing in August, passing mostly through Key West en route to its terrible destination in Louisiana. (I rarely went to the beach during my whole stay in Florida, but was always fascinated by the phenomenon of parasailers, so I was right there off A1A when Katrina hit, watching apparently mindless people fly high into the air.)
Several days before Wilma hit the state, I was extended an offer by a friend across the state to stay there for the duration of what promised to be a devastating event. My girlfriend, enrolled at classes at the time and with family in the area, had no interest in going anywhere. So I figured, fuck it, the building is up to code (not something one can always count on in South Florida), and we’ll ride it out.
On the morning of October 24th, I think it was, the storm–already recorded as the strongest ever in the Atlantic basin–washed ashore near Naples, on the Gulf Coast. It didn’t take long for the hurricane to cross the state and draw a bead on Boca Raton, which was exactly what the NOAA had been predicting for days. I was up all night waiting for this shit to happen, and got a call from my dad at roughly 6:30 that morning. He was tracking the storm online and saw that Boca was about to get nailed. I managed to correspond with him for about 10 minutes, until the power predictably blew out, followed in short order by my cell phone (at the time I was a T-mobile client, and we lost all service, although I’m not sure what difference being a subscriber to this particular provider made).
At about 7 a.m., things got nasty. I’d been listening to the winds picking up outside without necessarily giving it a lot of consideration, other than the damned dog’s endless pacing (bedroom? Living room? Bedroom? Living room?). Then the wind quickly got worse than any I’d ever experienced.
The world record for surface wind speed is 231 miles per hour, recorded 75 years ago on the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire during a gust that snapped the anenometer gauge, rendering the actual force of the blast open to question. Human bodies become obligatorily airborne at far slower speeds. Reported gusts during Wilma reached a “mere” 120 miles an hour (in nearby Pompano Beach), and that was enough. Our apartment building had all sorts of fake terra cotta (I think that’s the term) crap on top of it, and in the early morning that day, it was being torn off the roof and being blown into the driveway, with sounds resembling shotgun blasts. For some reason, the woman next door had chosen to park in the space my girlfriend ordinarily did. She got a young banyan tree on her Honda’s roof for her trouble.
By 8:30 I, having been up all night, had had enough, and went to sleep myself, next to a deeply troubled German Shepherd mix and a girlfriend who seemed remarkably unconcerned. (I recall sleeping to the left and on top of them both in the event the window blew in, unlikely as the prospect may have been.) This was more or less at the height of the storm, but as our power had been lost by that stage, I was no longer keeping good track.
I woke up at around 12:30, by which time the hurricane had come and gone. We (the three of us) went outside into an uncommonly cool, dry day. I immediately saw that every hanging traffic light in the city within visual range was on the ground, a finding later confirmed and expanded during a drive around town. Power poles had been abundantly sheared off at their base. I thought about playing Mr. Rogers and taking one of those light complexes into my apartment, but there were at least two problems with this: 1) I couldn’t have wired any of those bad boys up given the damage, and 2) those fuckers are a lot bigger than they look when they’re dangling a couple dozen feet off the ground.
A quick survey of the immediate and nearby neighborhoods offered further ugliness. A row of 12-15 newspaper boxes had been toppled. A couple of airplane hangars at the Boca Raton Airport had been crumpled as if they had been made of aluminum foil, which they may well have been. Fallen trees blocked virtually every major intersection. On a run that afternoon (don’t ask), I saw a sign that had been torn off an overpass on Palmetto Park Drive and planted itself in the median strip. Those fucking things are also bigger than you think. This sign had to be 25 feet wide and must have weighed…a lot. It was stuck by one corner in the grass, and the force responsible for ripping it off the bridge isn’t something I like to consider. There were wires, most but not all them dead, on the ground, several offering a congratulatory hiss to idiots intent on getting a run in that day.
It would be two weeks before we would get our power back, although a local Publix supermarket opened only two days after Wilma blazed through the city.
South of us, where Colleen’s parents live, the damage was worse. Being
on the southern lip of a hurricane is never good, since winds travel counterclockwise and are therefore additive in an eastward-moving storm at such locations. Broward County was, as a result, very heavily smacked. Several of Fort Lauderdale’s larger buildings were hugely damaged; Colleen’s parents’ yard, including their pool and its caging, was more or less destroyed.
One Financial Plaza in Fort Lauderdale after Wilma
The city of Miami was mostly spared–this time. When a Saffir-Simpson Class 5 windstorm hits South Florida and its six million residents–and it’s only a matter of time–it will make Katrina’s impact look like a fouled-off fastball. There are only three real escape routes from the area (I-95 to the north, I-75 to the west, and Florida’s Turnpike) and people are generally too stupid to use them anyway.
All told, Wilma killed close to 60 people in Florida and caused close to $21 billion in damage.