After the Storm

Southeast Florida: An Open and Shut Coast

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 21, 2004

"There's not a hotel room within 60 miles of here," said Jackie Ducketts, manager of the Vero Beach Inn in Vero Beach, Fla. Although the hotel was up and running -- barely -- during a late-October visit, it was housing emergency workers only.

Vero Beach was near the epicenter of the damage caused by hurricanes Frances, a Category 3 storm that slammed Florida's east coast on Sept. 5, and Jeanne, a Category 2 cyclone that followed on Sept. 25. That combo punch left damage from Daytona Beach south to Palm Beach, a 200-mile stretch of coast. But the most severe impact occurred on the wire-thin barrier islands from Melbourne Beach to Port St. Lucie. As of Nov. 15, insurers had paid out $1.275 billion in claims for Brevard, Indian River and St. Lucie counties -- the "epicenter" counties that run from the towns of Scottsmoor in the north to Rio in the south. A Florida Department of Financial Services spokesman said that figure will rise. Martin County in the south and Volusia County in the north also showed high claims payments -- about $540 million combined.

At the Vero Beach Inn, plywood covered many of the windows and doors, balcony railings dangled and scaffolding adorned the outside walls. But the hotel had a roof and electricity, and was not falling into the sea.

The same cannot be said of the Ocean Gate condominiums, also in Vero. Ocean Gate comprises two towers joined by a two-story clubhouse, which was listing deeply to port, due to erosion.

Tim and Madeline McDonald, who own a unit in Ocean Gate, were peering under the building from the beach where, Madeline said, there used to be 30 feet of grass.

"It will be a year before we get back in," Tim said. "When you have water coming in sideways at 130 miles per hour, it's going to find every crack."

For many homes and businesses, that water caused mold growth, making many buildings inhabitable.

Working south from Daytona Beach, here is a summary of hurricane damage along the coast. Damage along most of the coast is spotty, with some hotels shuttered for months while their next-door neighbors are open. Ditto for restaurants. If you have a favorite hotel, cafe, beach or attraction not listed below, call ahead to check its status.

• Daytona Beach: As of Nov. 15, about 20 percent of Daytona's 13,548 hotel rooms were still unavailable. Reopening dates vary. All restaurants, major roads and attractions are open. Some beaches suffered significant erosion.

• New Smyrna Beach: About 1,000 of this area's 4,500 guest rooms remain closed, with reopening dates varying. But like Daytona, New Smyrna suffered relatively little damage compared with points south.

• Space Coast area (Brevard County, from Scottsmoor to Micco): There was very little damage in the northern end of this 72-mile stretch, but Tom Bartosek, visitor information manager at the Space Coast Office of Tourism, says 24 of 150 lodgings in the area remain closed. Most will not reopen until April, although some expect to open in time for the holidays.

Cocoa Beach's three major hotels are closed: The Hilton and the Doubletree hope to reopen Dec. 1, and the 500-room Holiday Inn plans to reopen Feb. 1. The Kennedy Space Center is open, as are the area's 23 public golf courses. The Ramada Inn in Satellite Beach, south of Cocoa Beach, has not set a reopening date. "Quite a few restaurants" in the Space Coast area are still closed, Bartosek said.

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