In Fla., Calm Before Wilma

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 22, 2005

NAPLES, Fla., Oct. 21 -- As Hurricane Wilma battered Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on Friday with 140-mph winds and heavy rain, surfers in Florida scanned the horizon and predicted the arrival of really big waves -- soon.

Some Floridians were skeptical about televised forecasts, calling the hurricane report "hysteria." But those alert to their backyard ecosystems said they noticed that the birds have gone.

"Typically, you can flush a dozen birds out of here," retiree George Uding said walking into an arbor at his home near the beach. "I think they know something we don't."

For many here in this affluent coastal area, the anticipation of Hurricane Wilma was more a curiosity than a crisis. And so while residents here were ordered Friday to evacuate, the traffic jams and desperation that have become familiar this storm season did not materialize.

At 11 p.m. Friday, Wilma was headed ashore near Cancun after having crossed the northern tip of the Mexican island of Cozumel, moving northwest at 3 mph. Thousands of tourists took shelter in gymnasiums and inland hotels as the Category 4 storm overturned houses, uprooted trees and swamped streets. Wilma, which killed 13 people in Haiti and Cuba, is projected to linger for two days over the Yucatan, dropping 10 to 20 inches of rain and causing extensive damage but also weakening.

Forecasters pushed its predicted Florida landfall to Monday afternoon or later. The anticipated delay has helped emergency officials stretch out the evacuation timetable.

Thousands of people fled Collier County, officials said, and thousands more are expected to leave by Sunday, the deadline for the evacuation. The order affects about 70,000 people in the county's western coastal areas, and about 30 percent of them are gone, officials said Friday.

In Washington, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials seemed intent on improving on its roundly criticized performance with Hurricane Katrina.

Seeking to show they had learned at least preliminary lessons after the agonizingly slow response to Katrina, officials announced they had deployed emergency communications gear and federal liaison teams across Florida's counties and posted military coordinators at FEMA's Washington headquarters.

New Orleans and Louisiana electric emergency response radios were all but knocked out after Katrina on Aug. 29, along with communications networks, blinding emergency managers in the early days.

FEMA has delivered more than 300 satellite phones to potentially affected counties, "so we have good visibility of what's going on in case communications goes down," said acting FEMA Director R. David Paulison.

He said Wilma "is projected to be a Category 2 or Category 1 at landfall, but we are not taking anything for granted" and will treat it as a major hurricane.

The agency is also bringing more than 300 truckloads of water, ice and meals to Homestead Air Force Base and the Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida to be distributed at the state's request. Four urban search and rescue and nine disaster medical teams are setting up.

Dan Summers, Collier County's emergency management director, said that most of the county's housing stock could likely handle a Category 1 or Category 2 storm because it was built after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which spurred tougher building codes statewide.

Summers said it was difficult dealing with the changing forecasts for Wilma's arrival. He defended the decision to order an evacuation on Friday for a storm that now is not expected to hit until Monday or later.

"While we have gained some time with this storm event, very likely we could lose some time," he said. "There is some frustration there. But people have to remember that being on the beachfront is not where you want to be for a hurricane."

Many homeowners have put shutters or plywood over windows, and many stores plan to close this weekend. But for many it's far too early to start worrying.

Matt Morris, 16, of Naples was out at the city pier using a skimboard. He and his family, who live some miles inland, are planning to board up and ride out the storm.

His mind was on the waves, though. "Tomorrow is going to be huge," he said.


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