Ferocious Second Act
|Location||Everglades City, Florida, USA|
|Date||24 Oct 2005|
|Intensity||Cat 3 (105 knots)|
Wilma was a large, powerful, late-season Gulf hurricane that blasted across populated South Florida at breakneck speed. I pursued Wilma to “ground zero”: Everglades City—a tiny, low-lying fishing village just right of the landfall point. After the calm eye, the storm's backside exploded with surprising ferocity, sweeping in a massive, inundating storm surge. Maybe it was risky, but it was an amazing experience to ride out the cyclone's core in such an exposed, vulnerable location.Chase Report
The thing I will most remember about Wilma—what made it most unique to me—was that the backside of the eyewall was much worse than the leading portion. I base this not just on my own experience, but also on discussions with others who rode out the storm near Naples, Everglades City, and Boca Raton (on the East Coast). I am only aware of one other hurricane in recent U.S. history—Celia 1970—that produced the severest conditions after the eye.
I was not keeping this diary during the chase—it was all happening too fast—but I was able to reconstruct the events afterward and include times based on video timestamps.
1. The Leading Edge
3:45 am EDT—Highway 41, Naples & Further S
I hooked up with two other chasers—Tony Brite and another fellow by the name of Paul—whom I met in my hotel lobby. They were in a daring mood, and being with two others gave me the confidence to once more make an expedition down Highway 41 as conditions rapidly deteriorated.
The wind was really picking up. The highway was deserted and transformer boxes were exploding frequently, like fireworks—lighting up the sky bright blue and creating eerie silhouettes of traffic lights dancing crazily on their wires. The car occasionally listed off course and I started to get a creeping feeling that we needed to find shelter fast—especially as updates indicated the storm continued to intensify up to landfall.
2. The Eyewall (Front Side)
5:15 am EDT—Highway 41, near Naples Manor (mainland close to Marco Island)
Conditions were getting dangerous and we couldn’t find an ideal place to ride out the eyewall—which we knew from radio reports was minutes away—so we pulled into a big shopping plaza at Triangle Blvd and Highway 41. We could hear occasional banging sounds—but it was dark and we couldn’t tell what caused them. A shop door flew open, and I suggested to my chase partners we take shelter in there. They were reluctant, saying we would be arrested for looting.
The wind increased in intensity and was soon ripping really hard and steady. I road out the eyewall pressed up against the wall of a Kmart on the downwind side of the building, filming the trees in the parking swaying furiously. The howling wind seemed unnatural—almost machine-generated—in its harsh steadiness.
It was a good blow, but perhaps not as strong as we were expecting, given that we were in the eyewall of a strong Cat 3. In fact, I estimate that the winds in this leading portion of the eyewall in this location reached Cat 1 strength only. I base this on the fact that most trees in the shopping plaza took a beating but stayed up.
I attribute these relatively low winds to the fact that we were on the left side of a very rapidly moving storm.
The wind slackened off quite a bit around 6:20 am EDT, and my chase partners and I agreed the leading edge of the storm had peaked. We were perhaps a tad disappointed it hadn’t been more intense.
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3. The Eye
7:05 am EDT—Highway 41, between Marco Island & Everglades City
By around 7 am or so it was quite calm and the eye was certainly passing over. Emboldened by the apparent mildness of the storm, Tony and I decided to drive down the coast during the eye to see what was up in Everglades City. Paul said, “Knock yourselves out,” and headed back up the highway to the hotel in Naples—he wanted no part in this.
As Tony and I drove down the swampy Highway 41, the sun rose. The sky was bluish grey, with bits of dull, smoky sunlight breaking through. At some points it was almost completely calm. Flocks of birds floated about; some of them seemed confused and we had to keep slamming the brakes to avoid running them over. Twice we barreled into downed powerlines hanging over the road.
We passed along a very desolate stretch of Highway 41 and Tony kept asking, “How much longer?” I said we’d be there soon, but I was not sure how soon. We reached a small marina community with downed trees and torn shingles, and we ask a fellow standing outside of his house, “Are we in the eye?” We asked because it was taking so long to pass, we were wondering if maybe the whole storm had passed. He confirmed we were in the eye.
Finally we got to the 29 junction, where all of the aluminum roofing of the tourist information center was scattered on the grass and stuck in trees. We met a shirtless fellow holding a beer who rode out the first part of the storm with his wife in a mobile home. He smiled and said the second half of the storm would be worse. I smiled but felt skeptical and wondered how he would know this.
The wind picked up a tad as Tony and I drove a mile down the 29 to Everglades City. The town had taken a beating, with downed trees and signs and debris scattered everywhere.
4. The Eyewall (Backside)
8:00 am EDT—Everglades City
We pulled into the heart of Everglades City, and it seemed the second we got out of the car, the wind exploded like a rocket—it was like someone turned the wind machine back on and all the palm trees immediately and obediently bowed toward the east. I have never before seen the winds after the eye of a hurricane pick up so suddenly.
And I was caught off guard by the ferocity. The wind screamed—literally screamed—making that terrible hurricane sound that we did not hear during the first half of the storm. Tony and I looked at each other. “This is it—now we’re really getting it,” I thought. I jumped out of the car and stood close against the downwind side of an old warehouse maybe 50 yards from the backside of the city hall. The palm trees twisted furiously and crap was flying through the air. Every minute or so I heard a sound like an airplane taking off, and each time I heard this sound a terrific gust exploded within a couple of seconds, spraying debris and shredding the trees. A block away, I saw lawn furniture flying down the street—really fast. Big pieces of building material sailed overheard—just every kind of crap you can imagine.
I got in a pattern where I knew to brace myself and take cover every time I heard the “airplane sound”. I filmed as best I could, but the camera shook a lot.
I repositioned to a stairwell about 75 yards away, and the winds seemed to get even worse, the extreme “airplane gusts” seeming to happen more frequently. Tony was in his car and I was trying to come out from the stairwell when we had what we both agreed afterward was the “peak gust” of the storm; it made a higher pitched scream than all the others. I glimpsed a couple of big pieces of debris flying at us, and I dove back into the stairwell. Something hit Tony’s car—and him, in the neck—as he sat in his car with the window open.
5. The Surge
9:10 am EDT—Everglades City
The eyewall winds were still ripping—maybe even worse than an hour ago.
We were only about 20 yards from Lake Placid, which connects with the Gulf, and the wind was whipping the water into a ghostly white spray that hovered above the surface. At this point, I noticed that the center of town was flooded and the storm surge was coming up the stairs that I was standing on. The wheels of Tony’s car were submerged, and we realized we had only moments to take action.
We jumped in the car—dodging the flying debris—and drove 100 yards in deep water to a small inn, The Captain’s Table. We pulled into the driveway, which was just a few feet above the water.
We jumped out of the car and ran inside and I was damn happy to see other people. The hotel had taken a beating—the wind had completely ripped away all the second-floor porches and the signage blocked the front steps. The inn was surrounded by water on all sides—the streets around it were simply wind-whipped water with trees and signposts sticking out. The innkeeper, David, his wife, Maggie, and others were busy bringing stuff up to the second floor as the water rapidly rose. The wind was still shrieking—it showed no signs of letting up—and I couldn’t believe the eyewall was lasting so long. I asked the innkeeper what we would do if the water came higher—he said nonchalantly that we’d need to get to the second floor.
We were trapped. I thought of that famous story about the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian during Hurricane Camille. I was a little freaked at this point and starting to feel like this experience had crossed a line, I had made a big mistake, I am never doing this again, etc.
6. Saved By the Grace of…
10 am EDT—Everglades City
The Gulf flooded the driveway and the foundation of the inn, but it stopped there and never came higher. And very, very slowly, the winds seemed to mellow out.
An AP reporter made his way to the inn and interviewed me. Once we were out of imminent danger, the adrenalin wore off and I was damn tired—just totally strung out.
But we were still trapped—we were still surrounded by water and the Gulf showed no sign of draining. We would be trapped there for the rest of the day at least. I resigned myself to this and asked the innkeeper for a room. I passed out in bed for a few hours, the wind still whistling and banging outside.
5:25 pm EDT—Everglades City
I awoke to a knock on the door—it was my chase partner, Tony, cheerily telling me the surge had drained and we could leave. I came downstairs and looked around. The Gulf had receded enough to reveal the streets, the sun was shining, a fresh breeze was blowing. We said goodbye to the innkeeper and his wife and a few others whom we rode out the storm with, then assessed damage in the parts of the town that were not underwater.
Overall, given the ferocity of the storm, we felt Everglades City got through pretty well. We saw no complete structural failures, and the streets and infrastructure seemed to be intact, though smashed up a bit.
My chase partner and I do not believe that Cat 3 winds occurred in Everglades City. We base this assessment on the fact that we saw no homes with complete roof or wall failures. Our call is Cat 2 winds in Everglades City. We assume Cat 3 winds occurred further to the SE, over the Everglades. (Note: We are not professionals—these are our amateur opinions using the Saffir-Simpson damage descriptions as a guide.)
After taking some pictures, we took off up Highway 41, heading back to Naples.
8. The Trek North
Evening—Naples & Fort Myers
It got dark as we headed up the 41. Naples was completely blacked out and under curfew, with numerous police checkpoints. It was hard to assess damage due to darkness, but numerous trees and signs seemed to be blown down along Highway 41.
The damage lessened significantly as we went north, and Fort Myers seemed to have gotten off very easy—with just some trees and signs damaged. They had electricity, and we checked into a Days Inn. With a hot shower, a warm bed, and a microwaved TV dinner from the nearby 7-Eleven, I was as happy as a clam.
9. The Days After
25 October: Early Afternoon—Lake Okeechobee Region
In the morning I said goodbye to Tony and headed E on the 80 toward the East Coast, to check on my grandparents in Boca Raton.
Communities to the S of Lake Okeechobee—including Clewiston, South Bay, and Belle Glade—had significant wind damage. Shopping plazas along the highway had widespread tree blowdown, many signs completely blown out, and (in some instances) heavy damage to roofs and facades.
25 October: Late Afternoon & Evening—Boca Raton
I arrived in Boca Raton and was surprised to find widespread, very significant wind damage. Some shopping plazas had lost 2/3 of their trees, with all of the signs blown out and numerous street lamps smashed.
My grandparents’ gated community was no better—with extensive tree blowdown, every street lamp down, many screened-in porches completely destroyed (some smashing through windows), and spotty roof damage. People in the Boca Raton/West Palm Beach region—who have had so many near misses over the last couple of years—were shocked to finally get the full effects of a direct hit from a pretty-harsh ‘cane.
Electricity was out all over the region. At night, my grandparents and I sat in the dark eating gefilte fish and peanut-butter sandwiches for dinner.
26-27 October—Boca Raton
Life in S Florida was completely disrupted. There was almost no power and very little phone service. The few functioning gas stations had lines that extended for over a mile. The Home Depot had lines. The grocery stores was selling only dry goods from half-empty shelves. Trees, smashed street lamps, blown out signs, and odd pieces of debris littered streets and driveways.
I did not have enough gasoline to get back to Tampa, where my flight to L.A. was leaving from. My grandparents’ handyman, Cody, tried to siphon gas from grandfather’s car into mine, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t find gas anywhere else.
As a last resort, I paid Cody a good chunk of change to drive me to Tampa in the middle of the night. We couldn’t even find gasoline for his car until we got well N, into Highlands County.