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5 years after Hurricane Wilma's devastation, state still bears scars

Meteorological DisastersHurricanes and Tropical StormsMexicoDownstream Oil and Gas ActivitiesInsuranceWater Supply

Five years ago today, Hurricane Wilma ripped across Florida and into the record books as the third costliest storm in U.S. history, and the most damaging hurricane ever to strike Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Tens of thousands of South Floridians lost electricity, schools and businesses were shut down for days, gas lines were blocks long and destruction was so widespread that many roofs have yet to be repaired.

Wilma spurred the state and many South Florida communities to better prepare for the next disaster. New state and local laws call for back-up generators to power water treatment plants and gas stations, tighter building codes and improvements to emergency shelters and warning systems.

In Cooper City, commissioners even passed an ordinance that allows the temporary appropriation of private boats and chain saws if needed to save lives. "With a natural disaster, who knows?" said Cooper City Mayor Debby Eisinger. "I can't guarantee we won't lose electricity. But I'm confident we're better prepared."

Wilma's final toll: five dead in Florida, $20 billion in damage, and a haunting awareness that even a mid-size hurricane can cause enduring disruption.

"We still haven't recovered, financially or emotionally," said Sandra Nelson, 36, president of one of four homeowners' associations at the hard-hit Stonebridge Gardens, a condominium complex in Lauderhill that is pockmarked with vacancies and foreclosures and may be teetering toward receivership.

In Palm Beach County, the higher-income residents of Huntington Lakes, a senior community west of Delray Beach, are faring a little better. After years of legal wrangling and special assessments, they have money in the bank.

But final repairs to 41 Huntington Lakes roofs damaged by Wilma began only this month, and only after a $6.8 million settlement from insurance carriers.

"Wilma left us with a lot of chaos," said condominium association president Walter Peller, 96. "We are coping pretty well, but it's an ongoing job."

In the aftermath of the storm, thousands of homes in Broward and Palm Beach counties were covered with blue tarps, stalks of sugar cane in fields near Lake Okeechobee were flattened, and the streets of downtown Fort Lauderdale were littered with glass. Among the buildings made instantly uninhabitable when the windows blew out were the 14-story Broward School Board's building, called the Crystal Palace, and the county courthouse.

"Wilma really woke people up to fact that a hurricane that's a direct hit doesn't have to be real severe to cause problems, especially if you lose electricity," said Tony Carper, who was Broward County's emergency management director at the time.

"We were at the end of hurricane season, and everyone was tired," he said. "There had been so much activity in 2004 [with Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne], and many people here had been to New Orleans to help with Katrina. So people had just about had it."

Statewide, the Legislature earmarked $52.8 million to install emergency power generators in special needs shelters, including three schools in Broward County: Sunset School in Fort Lauderdale; McNicoll Middle School in Hollywood, and Davie's Indian Ridge Middle School.

Another $45 million was set aside for new county emergency operation center construction.

In Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, more than 60 gas stations located within a half-mile of an interstate highway or evacuation route are required to have back-up generators. And many more stores — including gas stations and grocery stores in that display the "Hurricane Ready" decal — are prepared to stay powered up if power is lost.

The state's largest utility, Florida Power & Light, has spent $623 million since Wilma to protect the power grid, trimming trees along 47,000 miles of power lines, inspecting a half-million utility poles and upgrading equipment near every major hospital. Irene White, FPL's senior director of customer support, stopped short of saying there would be no outages when the next storm hits. But, she said, "Do I feel good work has been done? Absolutely."

The state's Department of Transportation, working with counties, have storm-proofed thousands of intersections by replacing hanging signals with more sturdy mast arms. "After Wilma, there was not a functioning traffic light in Broward County," said Carper, now retired. "Traffic is usually bad here, but that was a nightmare."

Wireless companies have.erected hundreds of new towers since Wilma to handle capacity increases.

The storm also took out tens of thousands of trees in South Florida, including those critical to providing shade. "We lost so many trees," said Carol Morgenstern, a spokeswoman for the Broward Parks and Recreation Department, "especially those without strong root system."

But since 2005, the Parks Department has planted 30,386 replacement trees, including 15,000 canopy trees such as live oak and gumbo limbo,

In Palm Beach County, a new computer system and a rewritten disaster plan means faster communication between the Emergency Operations Center and storm victims, said public safety director Vince Bonvento. The plan divides the county into six zones, overseen in emergencies by teams who have been drilled to set up local command posts.

The county also has contracted with the Cheney Brothers, the Riviera Beach-based food distributors, to haul in food, water and ice after a storm. "We want to be much more proactive, and make delivering supplies to the people in gated communities and others in need much more efficient," said Bonvento.

Of course, the best-laid plans are useless if not followed, warn emergency managers. "What we know from Wilma is that late-season storms can be a problem, and power can be out for a week or two," said Chuck Lanza, director of the Broward County emergency management director. "So people need to be ready."

Peller, who has been president of his Section 2 condominium association in Huntington Lakes for 26 years, thought he and his neighbors were ready. But Wilma lifted roofs, uprooted scores of trees and ravaged residents' sense of well-being.

"We had to spend $55,000 the very next day to secure the buildings with tarps and plywood," said Peller, a retired restaurateur from New York. The complex was without power for 10 days.

In addition to long-delayed roof repairs now under way, residents also are reminded of Wilma by continuing legal issues. Last month the 55-and-older community sued a former attorney, accusing the Fort Lauderdale firm of fraud and misrepresentation while handling its property insurance claims after the storm.

"Now we know what to expect from our insurance company — which is not too much — and we know what to do to be prepared for something like this, which is have a reserve fund," said Neal Judas, 69.

Hurricane Wilma was an unusual storm in all sorts of ways. It blew into Florida through the back door, coming up from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, and moving across the state from southwest to northeast. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties all took a pounding during the four and a half hours the storm was over land.

And although winds topped 100 miles an hour in South Florida, Wilma was not the most powerful system of the hectic 2005 season. Nor was it the most notorious of the year. Hurricane Katrina claims that distinction.

But Wilma took a toll.

Among those eventually driven out of South Florida by Hurricane Wilma were Edgar Schneider, 80, and his wife Alix Kazan. When their home, along with 400 others in Stonebridge Gardens, was condemned, they rented for more than two years while awaiting an insurance settlement.

When that dragged on, they finally gave up. In 2007 they sold the unit where they had lived for nine years for a cut-rate price of $37,000 and moved to Georgia.

"We just wanted out," said Schneider, who worked as a mathematician for IBM. "And they only way I'd come back to Florida now is in chains and at the point of a deadly weapon."

Mike Clary can be reached at mclary@sunsentinel.com or at 305-810-5007.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Meteorological DisastersHurricanes and Tropical StormsMexicoDownstream Oil and Gas ActivitiesInsuranceWater Supply
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