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.
The Holiday Inn in Melbourne Beach is being gutted and rebuilt. When I visited, assistant superintendent Grant Kevins was selling water-damaged furniture outside the building. "We were going to throw this stuff out, but many people around here have nothing left, so we're practically giving it away." Chairs were $5.
The hotel's eighth floor was stripped bare except for floor-to-ceiling metal framing, a few pieces of drywall and exposed wiring. Kevins said the hotel hopes to reopen by April.
Farther down the beach, Dawn-Heather Sutton directed a pair of workers at the Sandy Shoes Motel, which she manages. Chunks of wall were missing and hand railings from balconies and staircases hung in thin air. The swimming pool looked like a bomb crater.
"I was booked solid for the next three months," she said. "Now it's a three-month rebuilding job." She walked over to a 30-foot slope of replacement sand that she recently bought to replenish the obliterated shore. "We used to have 50 yards of beach here," she said.
Vero Beach, from Sebastian south to Fort Pierce: A bartender at the Pelican Pub in Sebastian said, "You can't find a hotel room around here."
I asked her how the recovery was going for other businesses and residents. "Terrible," she said. "Nobody can rebuild because you can't find an electrician or a roofer to come to your house."
In Vero, Jaycee Park is open, but the beach has shrunk and is now backed by 10-foot sea walls. Treasure Shores, Round Island, Ambersand Beach and South Beach are open. Closed beaches include Wabasso Beach, Tracking Station Park and Humiston Park. The Conn Beach boardwalk will not reopen until summer, at the earliest.
Disney's 172-room Vero Beach Resort is operating at full capacity. But the Vero Beach Hotel and Club, just eight miles south, and the Palm Court Resort, which entertainer Gloria Estefan purchased just weeks before the hurricanes, are closed until at least November 2005. The Driftwood Inn is closed, but may open some rooms by Christmas and may have its Waldo's restaurant open by Dec. 1.
All area golf courses are open, as are the McKee Botanical Garden, said Lori Burns, tourism and marketing director at the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce. The Riverside Theatre is open. "They rehearsed the show ["I Remember You"] in New York and came back down for the on-time theater opening," Burns said.
Moving south from Vero, mounds of debris line the roads as workers shuttle detritus from the high-rise hotels and condos. Mobile home sites sit empty save for shards of aluminum and strewn cinder blocks.
But recovery is ongoing: The Days Inn in Fort Pierce is open. Assistant manager Janice Miller said, "They're working on the beach every day. It's a lot better than it was."
The Dockside Inn and Holiday Inn Express expect to reopen by January. The Holiday Inn Beach Resort is unlikely to resume operations until summer. Fort Pierce Inlet State Park is open and in fair shape.
St. Lucie beach parks were hard hit. A guy working a backhoe through six feet of sand in the parking lot of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park said the cleanup there would take two to three more months.
Port St. Lucie to Juno: South of Port St. Lucie, conditions improve but spotty damage remains. The Hutchinson Island Marriott Beach Resort is open, as are the Holiday Inn and Ramada Inn in downtown Stuart. The Holiday Inn Oceanside in Jensen Beach is closed for at least a few more months, and the Courtyard by Marriott is not taking reservations before July.
The Stuart public beach and Hobe Sound beach are open, as is the Hobe Sound Wildlife Refuge, but its nature center is closed for repairs.
The highway to Bathtub Beach was washed out by Jeanne, and repair work has been slowed by high tides and wind, a Martin County Chamber of Commerce staffer said. "People come here for the beaches and the golf, and the golf courses are open," a staffer said. "But they are going to be disappointed with the beaches."
The Jupiter Beach Resort, the only beachfront resort in Jupiter, is closed. Scheduled renovations had started before the storms and the hotel was thus left exposed to nature's onslaught. It hopes to reopen in January.