For The Florida Keys, Wilma Brought Water

Oct 23, 2015

  Before Hurricane Wilma's winds swept across mainland South Florida, the storm's waters surged over the Florida Keys — the largest storm surge the islands had seen since Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

And for many in the Keys, Wilma wasn't an isolated event. It was the culmination of two long years of repeated alerts, evacuation orders and impacts from the relentless series of storms in the Atlantic during 2004 and 2005.

The Keys received four evacuation orders in 2004, but no major damage. Then the 2005 season started right on time, when Tropical Storm Arlene went by to the west of the Tortugas.

"And then the next month, there's another one. And the next month, there's another one. And every time the next one comes you think, 'Oh we're good for the season now. It's over. We've had our hurricane,'" says Virginia Wark, who has lived in Key West since 1985.

Wilma was the culmination of a two-year period. During 2005, the Keys received federal disaster declarations four times.
Credit NOAA Digital Coast / Office for Coastal Management

In July Hurricane Dennis crossed Cuba and came even closer. In August, Katrina unexpectedly dove southwest past the Keys after it crossed mainland South Florida. In September, Hurricane Rita drove through like a buzzsaw in the narrow Straits between Cuba and Key West.

"Another one comes and it's like getting sucker-punched," Wark says. "It was too much, over and over again and you felt like it was never going to end. You're like, 'This is what's going to happen. This is what it's going to be.'"

Paul Hansen was working as a paramedic and also shooting video of the various storms that went by the island.

"We had just gotten done with Hurricane Rita. And I just remember my neighbor saying, 'WIL-MA,' and I'm like, 'Well what's that mean?' And he's like, 'Well there's another one coming,'" Hansen says.

The county ordered a mandatory evacuation — the third evacuation that year — but few people left. They were exhausted, emotionally and financially, from the previous evacuations. Or they figured the storm wouldn't be that bad. Or they worried that leaving might just put them in the path of the storm.

By the time Wilma came along, many in the Keys were tapped out - emotionally and financially. Though the county ordered a mandatory evacuation, few left.
Credit Dale McDonald Collection / Monroe County Public Library

"You put yourself out of work at the end of the month, the man wants his money for the house, for the mortgage and everything," Hansen says. "And you get whacked with those storms, and then you've got to stop what you're doing. There's only so many trips to Orlando you can do when you're evacuating. It taps you out."

Wilma went by to the northwest in the early hours of Monday, Oct. 24. The center of the storm was 75 miles from the Keys. At the time it was a Category 3. There were some serious winds and coastal flooding overnight. But a lot of people went out in the morning and thought they'd made it through another one.

"We're like, 'OK - whew - we're good, we didn't get flooded. This is definitely a good thing,'" Hansen says. "And then the second surge came. And that was the big one."

Hansen and his wife were up to their thighs in water. They were keeping their two young kids on the couch to keep them dry. And it wasn't just the water. It was what was in the water.

Key West police go to the rescue of a baby on Dennis Street, near Key West High School.
Credit Dale McDonald Collection / Monroe County Public Library

"There was fuel, sewage in the water. There was every rodent, scorpion, snake — those were all in the surge water," Hansen says. "And the water had like a milky texture to it. That's the other thing that stands out in my mind. And it was all basically going right through the house."

Wark's first indication of the flood came when a dog she was taking care of ran into the bedroom and jumped on the bed — and its paws were wet. And then the water just kept rising.

"It was 3 feet. We had the dogs floating on the box spring and mattress in the bedroom," she says. "And the dogs are looking over the side of it, like they're looking over a raft."

It wasn't like Katrina in New Orleans. No one drowned at home. The water receded within a few hours. But it was still enough to destroy people's homes, like that of Betty Radics. She's a fourth-generation Conch, or Key West native. At the time, she lived in a mobile home.

She spent the storm at a hotel downtown, where she worked. The historic district is high ground and it didn't flood. After the storm was over, she walked home.

Her husband had warned her over the phone that they had water in the house and the floor had collapsed, but she wasn't prepared for what she saw.

"It looked like a bomb had gone off in it. Because all my clothes were wet. All my pictures, all my books," she says. "Everything I owned was soaking wet except for what I had on my back."

Wark, Hansen and Radics all say the thing that struck them the most about Hurricane Wilma was how important their networks of friends and family were in the recovery. Snowbirds let Radics and her husband stay in their winter homes until the couple got a FEMA trailer. The Hansens' family and friends did laundry, provided meals and loaned them money.

Most boats did OK during Hurricane Wilma. Things that couldn't float, like homes and cars, did not do so well.
Credit Dale McDonald Collection / Monroe County Public Library

Wark and her roommate waded over to their next door neighbor's house before the water had subsided. They wound up staying for a month and a half in his upstairs apartment.

"If it wasn't for Ralphie taking care of us and taking us in, I don't know what we would have done," says Wark. "He's like my big brother. He saved us."

The city of Key West received $10.6 million from FEMA for disaster recovery grants. The final closeout of the projects lasted until October 2013. Flood insurance claims paid just within the city totaled $164 million. It was the largest claims event since Key West joined the National Flood Insurance Program in the early 1970s. But Key West remains a donor community to the program, having paid about $279 million in premiums since joining, according to Scott Fraser, Key West's FEMA coordinator and floodplain administrator.

Wark fixed up her home, one room at a time. Hansen and his family lost their house, after living in a FEMA trailer for 2 1/2 years and replacing it with a modular home. They now live in a rental apartment and Hansen says he's relieved not to own property any more.

Hansen took the footage that he shot during Wilma and, with local filmmaker Michael Marrero, produced a documentary: "Hurricane Wilma: The Untold Story."

Radics says FEMA would not total her trailer so she took out a loan to rebuild it. After her husband died last year, she couldn't make the payments any more. Last week, she made her fourth trip to the mainland — at 70 years old — to declare bankruptcy at federal court in Miami.

She now lives in subsidized housing in a new complex in Key West. And she says she's happy.

"It made me appreciate what I have and what I did not need. I didn't need big fancy stuff. I didn't need all the money in the world," Radics says. "I gained so much. I gained so much insight into the people here in Key West and my friends. As I received help, I gave the help back. And that's what I do here, where I live now. I pay everything forward."