The “Greatest Storms on Earth” – Part VII
This is a continuation of a series on the history of hurricanes in our area. If you missed a part, you can find it online at www.coastalbreezenews.com under Tales told Twice archives.
2005 Hurricane Wilma
Wilma, the most recent hurricane to affect our area five years ago, was also the most unusual in many ways. On October 18 at 11 p.m., the storm was upgraded to a Category Two hurricane. Throughout that night, Wilma, then located southwest of Grand Cayman, continued to intensify to the point where, at midnight, it had jumped up to a Category Four hurricane with sustained winds near 150 mph. By the early hours of October 19, the storm had strengthened further to a Category Five hurricane, with maximum sustained winds near 175 mph. A U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane recorded the lowest minimum pressure ever measured for an Atlantic storm, 882 mill bars. Literally overnight, and in less than twelve hours, Wilma had powered up from a minimal storm to a massive hurricane, the strongest ever. Wilma became the twenty-first named storm of 2005, tying a record set in 1933 for the most storms in one year.
Wilma dropped slightly in power to a Category Four before impacting Cozumel, Cancun, and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. However, it also completely slowed its forward movement and sat over this resort area for a full two days, pounding the structures and the trapped tourists below. Later reports showed that the storm damaged over 700,000 dwellings, and left 300,000 people homeless in Mexico. Forecasters in Florida hoped for a “shear effect” from a cold front coming downfrom the north to knock out Wilma, but that never happened. Instead, the northern cold front made Wilma spin around and head east toward southwest Florida, rather than following a normal westward path.
Wilma picked up power from the warm Gulf waters and regained a Category Three status, with 120 mph winds hitting the Florida landmass at 6:30 a.m. on Monday, October 24. It landed at Cape Romano, between Marco Island and Everglades City, creating little storm surge to the north of it and approximately a ten-foot surge to the south, throughout the Ten Thousand Islands, including Port of the Islands, Everglades City, and Chokoloskee. Monroe County also received a large surge, submerging about a third of Key West to the point where people were rowing boats down the main streets. Residents said that their decision to “ride out the storm” was a big mistake as water rose in some homes in Key West to a level of five feet.
The storm was large with a 60-nautical-mile diameter eye. Destruction to the north of it was primarily due to wind damage. Normally, winds in the upper right quadrant of a storm are the strongest as the winds there are in the same direction as the forward motion of the storm. However, in this most unusual storm, the winds on the rear left quadrant were as strong or stronger. While Everglades City reported a peak wind gust at 95 mph, the gusts north of the storm were greater: Naples had a recorded gust at 121 mph, and an unofficial record on Marco Island showed a gust at 134 mph.
Wilma moved quickly at 25 mphnortheast through the Big Cypress National Preserve across Route I-75, then south of Lake Okeechobee, and exited the Florida peninsula above Palm Beach as a Category Two storm with 105 mph winds. It took just a little over four hours for the storm to cross the State. The east coast from north of Palm Beach to Miami was unprepared for Wilma as it blew out numerous windows, downed power lines, knocked out transformers, and cut off power to approximately six million people in Florida. Amazed residents saw the power and destruction of a “minor” Category Two hurricane and, even further out from the storm’s eye, witnessed the extensive damage a Category One storm can do.
Later in the day, on October 24, after Wilma exited out into the Atlantic Ocean to finally disappear, damage assessment commenced in Collier County. Mobile homes in the path of the storm, from Chokoloskee and Plantation Island, through East Naples and Immokalee, were found to be heavily damaged: Later calculations revealed that 615 mobile homes were destroyed and another 276 sustained major damage. In addition, on Chokoloskee Island, where both an eight-foot storm surge and intense wind contributed to the destruction, an estimated 200 RVs were destroyed. In Everglades City, four feet of water flooded the City leaving a grey, slick mud which came from the bottom of Chokoloskee Bay as the water receded. Numerous docks along the Barron River were torn up, and the Everglades City Hall, a 77-year-old building, that had served as the County Courthouse from 1928 to 1960, was so heavily damaged, it was no longer usable. Fortunately, due to the efforts ofthe Mayor, federal funds were obtained and it was totally restored and rebuilt.
On Marco Island, it was estimated that eighty per cent of the homes sustained minor wind damage, thirty percent of the roofs had damage, and two condominium buildings were “rendered uninhabitable.” At Hideaway Beach on the north end of the Island, five homes and four condominiums sustained major roof damage. To assist Lee County Electric in getting power back on the Island, the Marco Fire Department hosed down the salt-encrusted transformers.
Coconut Island in Capri Pass, which was created forty-five years earlier by Hurricane Donna, was completely overtopped by the surge and was cut into two shoals, which soon disappeared. Sand Dollar Island, just west of Tigertail Beach, was also overtopped by the surge, but did not sustain the extent of damage that occurred at South Beach, which lost a significant amount of sand.
Blue tarps appeared over many damaged roofs in Collier County, with hundreds of roofs and screen cages damaged. Of the six deaths caused in Florida by Hurricane Wilma, two of them were in Collier County. Final damages for Wilma totaled $20.6 billion, only six billion dollars less than Hurricane Andrew – evidence that the amount of damage is less dependent on the category of the storm than the path taken and the density of population impacted.
If you are out boating, you should stop and view the foam igloo house at the south tip of Cape Romano. The foam is totally imbedded with windblown shell from Wilma – tangible proof that the destruction to Collier County would have been much, much worse if the storm had hit a mere five to ten miles north.