Wilma's Force Surprises Keys Residents

By DAVID ROYSE, Associated Press Writer

Some residents of the Florida Keys were rethinking their refusal to evacuate for Hurricane Wilma on Monday after the storm isolated them, submerged streets under water up to 5 feet deep and turned out their lights.

No travel was possible in or out of Key West. Jay Gewin, assistant to the mayor, said 35 percent of the city was flooded, including the airport, and U.S. 1, the lone highway connecting the islands to each other and the mainland, was flooded near Islamorada.

Wilma made landfall before dawn in southwest Florida as a Category 3 storm, stronger than expected, and knocked out power and communications to the entire Keys island chain.

"A bunch of us that are the old-time Key Westers are kind of waking up Monday morning, going 'Well, maybe I should have paid a little more attention,'" restaurant owner Amy Culver-Aversa said.

However, she soon had a generator going and was giving out coffee, and she expected to reopen by Tuesday.

While Wilma's eye came ashore at Cape Romano on the Gulf Coast, about

95 miles to the north of Key West, the hurricane's strongest wind was on the south side, near the Keys.

Officials said more than 90 percent of year-round Keys residents refused to heed evacuation orders. "They are too smart to listen to what a experienced weatherman says on their television or radio," noted one official, sarcastically.

"We're not New Orleans," said Elaine Chinnis, walking her dogs along Key West's Duval Street a few hours before Wilma struck.

Islanders are hurricane weary - they've dealt with four this year alone -- and hurricane savvy. But while the previous three storms caused little damage in the Keys, Wilma was much worse than residents expected.

Ricky Cartwright said he probably would have left if he had known how bad the storm would be. Water up to his bed forced him to flee his home in the middle of the night and destroyed his possessions.

"All my clothes, all my shoes, everything," he said.

Key West streets were under several feet of water four blocks inland from the shore.

"Within 45 minutes, it went from 6 inches to 4 or 5 feet deep," said Chris Elwell, whose new Porsche Boxster was submerged to its roof.

"It was like a train coming on both sides of me," said Key West bartender Noah Ackerman, who tried to ride out the storm in a house elevated on stilts but gave up and left to seek better shelter.

"All the streets are rivers," said Ackerman, who was given a ride to a shelter by passing police. "You can see water just rushing through."

Islanders said they weren't being cavalier when they refused to leave, they just weren't afraid of Wilma.

"It seems like we know more than the weather people," Chinnis said before Wilma's arrival. "They seem to over-exaggerate everything."

That attitude frustrates public officials.

"We've been preaching this for decades, and you know, the government can only do so much," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. (and commenting on the failure of most residents to evacuate the area) "I don't know how we motivate people, when the residents know so much more about this than the rest of us."

Throughout town, residents went about their business 'as usual', wading through several feet of water in many cases. Two residents were hoisting a gasoline-powered generator into place while a third was tinkering with a battery-powered radio trying to get it running.


On the Net:

City of Key West:

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(Web Site was out of order and unreachable at 12 noon Monday.)

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

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