Floridians Surprised By Wilma's Intensity

By Peter Whoriskey and Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 26, 2005

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Oct. 25 -- For other hurricanes, Nate and Kelly Vedrani, 27-year-old newlyweds, fled their condo in a 16-story beach tower here to take refuge elsewhere.

But for Hurricane Wilma, authorities did not issue an evacuation order for the high-rises that line the beach here, so the couple and many other residents stayed put. It was a decision they regret.

First, a big chunk of the building's roof crashed onto their fifth-floor balcony. Then they heard breaking glass from windows blowing out in neighboring units and feared theirs would be next. Then there was the explosion when the rooftop cooling towers plunged onto the tennis courts.

The Vedranis and neighbors moved into the hallway for safety, but when Kelly Vedrani rested her head against the wall and felt it vibrating wildly, she said, "I lost it."

"That's when I really began to cry," Kelly recalled Tuesday, packing a car and preparing to leave.

But she was also angry.

"I kept thinking we wouldn't have been in that position if there'd been an evacuation order," she said.

As hundreds of thousands of South Floridians struggled to make do without electricity and water in the wake of Hurricane Wilma, forming hours-long lines at darkened supermarkets, drugstores and water distribution sites, there was a sense of wonder: How did this happen?

Many here had anticipated a relatively weak Category 1 hurricane. But Broward County emergency managers say they measured winds of 120 mph, Category 3 strength, as the storm blew past.

"The forecasters told us it would hit the west coast as a [Category] 2 and come at us as 1, and we got a 3," Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle said. "But we know Mother Nature is unpredictable."

The damage to the power and water systems was extensive. About 98 percent of the homes in Broward County and a large proportion in Miami-Dade County had no electricity, local officials said. But people were not sweltering. The weather turned pleasantly cool, eliminating the need for air conditioning.

The widespread lack of drinking water, and in some places, the absence of any water at all, had become a far more serious matter for people who did not heed warnings to have several days' supply ready.

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