It’s Tuesday, I think.
Everything is a blur of damage, despair and doomed spirits. The complaints have started here in Collier County, and they may not quiet for some time. It’s not people wanting access to their million-dollar homes. It’s the seeming lack of preparation for after the storm. It’s the closed shelters, the outdated automated storm messages, the lack of response in rural, remote areas.
Some people shouldn’t just complain, they should rise up. They should make sure and vote next time there is a local election.
We have been cut off from most basic things since early Monday morning. No power, no internet, no water without boiling it first. But we still have it better than the farm workers and year-round residents of Immokalee. Mark Guss and I last night, sitting by candlelight, thought about what they must be going through. Water surrounds most of their homes. Many have lost everything. Others are trying not to lose more. But, they told us, over and over, no one had come yet to help. Not even the local sheriff’s deputies or firefighters.
County officials didn’t want to hear about it Monday night. It’s tough all over, they said. One county commissioner accused me of making it seem worse than it was, of getting my facts wrong. Look for the positive, he said. At least only one person there died, he said.
If you think Mother Nature is cruel, human nature can be just as bad, if not worse.
Mark Guss and I have now spent four days in Naples, traveling the backroads of Collier County, seeking out stories in the Everglades, meeting the people who seek shelter, those who provide care and many who still don’t know what to expect.
Sunday was no different. The routine now is get up at 6:30 a.m., meet in the hotel lobby for coffee and a waffle, plan strategy and head out to parts unknown, fielding phone calls from co-workers, our bosses and our loved ones. The hotel staff is like an extended family. We joke with them like longtime friends. They are a constant presence, wishing us well in the morning and saying goodnight once we finally return.
We keep up with Wilma by TV. There always seems to be a television broadcasting weather news. It could be worse, and believe me, it is, once you flip the channels away from weather in search of something distracting to watch at the hotel. I’ve decided I’m spoiled and rely too much on my DVR, knowing the bunch of new shows that have recorded since I left Tampa. I miss my girlfriend. And my house and our cats. The only relief for Mark and I is knowing that our families in Tampa and Bradenton should be spared the worst of the storm.
Today was filled with emergency shelters, and Immokalee, a migrant farming community northeast of Naples. It’s a stark contrast to the million-dollar mansions and ritzy restaurants that line the beach. Residents in Immokalee work hard for little pay. They pick the crops, live in mobile homes, speak Spanish mostly and have few comforts that we enjoy. To find a place where McDonald’s and Wal-Mart have not invaded is shocking. Five blocks from downtown is the Seminole Casino. Even with Wilma heading this way, the parking lot had cars. Inside, people played nickel, quarter and dollar slots. A big-screen television broadcast The Weather Channel, but few people seemed to notice.
Mark and I met Dennis and Peggy Burton at Collier County’s only special needs shelter. Their story of love and lifelong devotion is uplifting. Dennis is very ill, and Peggy is both his wife and nurse. Look for our story about them in Monday’s Tribune. It really is an amazing tale.
We met Viola Fuller, who cares for nine adopted children even though she is 73. She and her family took refuge at a shelter in Immokalee. Viola prayed for little damage. We wished her well, and we wished her safe return home.
Fewer businesses are open today. Subway, however, wasn’t closed. There seems to be a Subway on every corner here. Publix grocery stores too.
The only thing missing is the reason we’ve become so familiar with this area.
Soon. Not much longer now. I’ve got two candles out on the desk in the hotel. Water in the truck. Flashlight by our side.
Come on, Wilma. It’s time to send you on your way.
It stands to reason that no one wants to buy plywood every time a hurricane threatens here in Florida.
Not only would it be an exhausting venture, given the past two years worth of turbulent storms, but it would cost a ton of money too. The simple solution, then, is to recycle.
Saturday, as photojournalist Mark Guss and I drove around Naples, we noticed something about the protective wood sheets. Some looked new. Others bore the scars of being stored, dropped, drilled on and pulled off. But the best ones contained a common identifier - the names of past storms.
An Arby’s restaurant off Pine Ridge Road was boarded up with planks that bore messages to both Wilma and Hurricane Ivan, which threatened last year.
But the grand prize for frugal storm supply recycler goes to a downtown business. The boards covering its windows were marked with a blast from the past - Hurricane Georges, which struck way back in 1998.
Taylor Cady, 15, wasn’t alive when “Fast Times at Ridgemont High’’ was released in 1982.
To have seen him Saturday, however, standing on Naples’ public beach with his shaggy blonde hair, baggy swim trunks and surf board in hand, you would have sworn he was Jeff Spicoli, the laid-back, history-deficient surfer, immortalized in the classic movie by a baby-faced Sean Penn.
Unlike most people here who are fleeing Hurricane Wilma’s path, Cady and two friends from Broward County drove more than an hour to Naples. They parked near a cul-de-sac, grabbed their boards and hit the sand.
It was an impromptu trip, classic Spicoli style.
“My mom wakes me up and says Naples has waves,” Cady said, pointing at his friend. “So I called him.”
The high waves raked at the coast, an early indication of what Wilma might bring here by Monday morning. It’s scary to say, but by mid-Saturday, the high-water line, already near the dunes, seemed ready to splash over with enough storm surge and easily threaten the million-dollar homes that fill the city’s emptying downtown.
Such things didn’t seem to matter to Cady. He was here for one reason - tasty waves.
“It’s better than what we have now over in Fort Lauderdale,” he said, and jogged into the surf.
It’s wet and barely light in Naples, but this city is buzzing. News crews from all over - CNN, The Weather Channel, NBC News - are broadcasting often. How many images of people boarding up can you possibly watch? The answer is an infinite amount. There’s little else on any television, even our own. I’m starting to dream about the weather. Every conversation Mark Guss and I have involves it. We debate landfalls, category strengths, possible scenarios. Yesterday we checked our hotel room windows and found one was broken. The glass wobbled worse than an Ybor City patron after last call. No good, especially when you’re on the third floor and facing the same direction that Wilma will come roaring. Luckily, it’s been fixed - sort of. A hotel worker jammed two thin boards into the window frame, and put some sealant on the glass. The feeling of safety now is overwhelming.
Downtown Naples last night was slow. Restaurants were understaffed. Late-night menus with appetizers replaced full dinner menus. The roads are not crowded. Parking lots empty. Even the mall, which workers there said would not close, wasn’t terribly busy.
This morning, Guss and I are driving to Everglades City, the lowest point in Collier County, to see how the mandatory evacuation is going. It’s a bit of a drive, but at least I know we won’t lack for conversation.
I grew up in an antique store. My grandmother owned it. My mother worked there.
Once a month, my mom had a booth at the local flea market. I always accompanied her, spending hours walking the aisles, scoring comic books and action figures and movie memorabillia with the skill of a seasoned pro. They taught me the value of knowing a bargain, and better still, appreciating that rare find for a fraction of the cost.
Friday, when Mark Guss and I ventured onto Marco Island to seek out hurricane warning flags and watch the ongoing evacuation, we spotted a funny sign scrawled over the boarded windows of a local Goodwill thrift store. I promised not to mention “The Flintstones’’ when writing about Hurricane Wilma, but this sign was too precious.
“Wilma,’’ it read, “Fred is not on Marco. Try Bedrock!!”
We stopped so Guss could get a photo, and then Kathy DeSmet walked up. She manages the store, and welcomed us inside.
On an island filled with beautiful mansions and upscale marinas, the irony of a Goodwill was not lost on DeSmet. The donated merchandise inside, however, was even better.
“Better than Bloomingdales,” DeSmet said.
And she wasn’t lying.
Versace suits. Coach handbags. Designer shoes costing upwards of $250 in a store.
DeSmet pulled a Tommy Bahama shirt off the rack, it’s tag still affixed. The shirt had never been worn. It cost more than $60 retail. Goodwill’s price? Less than $10.
Guss asked about the perks that must come with working there. Not only a store discount, but also that she probably got dibs on the best stuff before any customer could even lay claim.
She shook her head. Everything has to go on the floor for at least 24 hours before she can take it.
Did it matter where she might put - or hide - it on the floor, Guss asked.
DeSmet smiled. And, like someone who knows and appreciates a great bargain, refused to say.
Kathy DeSmet, right, talks to a friend, Lee Bosack, Friday inside the Marco Island Goodwill. [Photo by Mark Guss]
Helen Schroeder knows all about hurricanes. And pain. More than you or me. Much more than anyone ever should.
She left her home in Slidell, La., a day before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Her house, and two cars, were destroyed. Since early September, Schroeder has been in Naples, where her sister lives. She’s been staying at a local hotel. She hasn’t been back home.
But Friday, another storm, this time Wilma, was forcing her to flee again. Back home. To nothing. No house, no belongings. But at least it’s safe.
It helps to mention what else Schroeder has dealt with in 2005: Surgery on her brain, following a bad spill from a ladder. Surgery on her hip after that. Then Katrina. Now Wilma.
Schroeder, 72, said she feels like she’s being chased. And enough’s enough.
“The storm seems to be following me,” she said. “I’ve had a bad year. Really, really too much.”
It’s early, barely 7 a.m., and NBC News’ “Today” show is broadcasting live from Naples.
All eyes are on this part of the state. My eyes are barely open. But this is how it goes when tracking a hurricane. You get up early to check the latest forecast, then set about planning your day.
Mark Guss and I are driving to Marco Island this morning. Then to Everglades City. We hope to hear from residents about what they expect. I anticipate frustration, now that Wilma has slowed. They’re saying it could be Monday before she arrives. That will make for a long, tense weekend.
Tom Petty said it best: The waiting is the hardest part.
They have a charmed way of thinking here in Naples.
It’s been 45 years since a major hurricane made landfall. That was Donna in 1960. In between then and now, many storms have passed. Even Katrina brushed over this scenic, wealthy enclave. Rita threatened too. None have knocked directly on the door.
A former emergency management official, they say, notched it up to the Lord. God, he told his co-workers, owned a condo in Naples, so no bad storms would dare strike.
The gentleman working the front desk at our hotel went one better: The locals, he said today, have enough money to pay the storms to go elsewhere.
The perception, until now, has been that “people think it’s immune from hurricanes here,’’ said Jaime Sarbaugh, public information coordinator for the Collier County Bureau of Emergency Services.
But this storm is different. Where officials feared apathy, she said, they keep hearing about voluntary evacuations.
“We think people are taking this pretty seriously,’’ Sarbaugh said.
Emergency officials have a lot to think about too.
These are post-Katrina times. Residents expect more. They expect to be safe, especially if they do as they are told and put their faith in government. Not federal government, but local.
“We watched the things that went wrong in New Orleans,’’ Sarbaugh said, “and it scared us to death.’‘
Plans have been tweaked since then. Evacuations are being urged. Transportation for those who don’t have any or cannot afford it is being prepared. Shelters are being opened.
The message is simple, and reflective of Katrina’s wake. Collier County doesn’t want people to think they are relying on the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We want people to know emergency management is a local-level department,’’ Sarbaugh said. “We’re prepared to handle this.”
The question, of course, is handle what? What will happen, and when?
Thursday night, as photojournalist Mark Guss and I drove around Naples, we were amazed to see a bustling downtown gallery and restaurant district filled with people. Outside cafes, awaiting food. Walking past shops. Knocking back drinks at the local Irish pub. Few windows are boarded up, fewer businesses closed.
On a public beach entrance at a cul-de-sac, visitors dug their toes in the sand. People waded out into the calm waters.
It’s eerie, and comforting, all at once. You gain strength from their lack of fear, their confidence that luck will once again hold its hand. Naples has lasted 45 years without a direct threat. If God is a snowbird, maybe he arrived early to spruce up his pad.
Then you think about the buzz inside the EOC war room. The phone calls that have already been made. Officials here have talked to Homeland Security, FEMA, the Air Force and the Secret Service.
Yes, the Secret Service.
That call was classified. Few people allowed to listen in. But speculation holds that agents are already making plans - just in case - for a presidential visit to survey what’s left once Wilma comes knocking on the door.
Photojournalist Mark Guss and I made our way separately to Naples this morning, leaving our respective homes in Bradenton and Tampa. He made better time, hitting Interstate 75 early and calling by 11 a.m. with an update. Traffic was already backed up at times on northbound I-75 between Sarasota and Port Charlotte. Guss didn’t know whether it was evacuees or not, as the bumper to bumper gridlock was sporadic at best.
By 1:30 p.m., when I finally hit the highway, I too came across long stretches of stalled cars, heading north. There didn’t appear to be any accidents or major construction causing the delay. Just long lines of cars, trucks and recreational vehicles going nowhere fast, but at least, going in the opposite direction of the coming storm.
That’s the thing with hurricanes and evacuations. You don’t know who’s leaving, who’s commuting or who’s just out for a drive. You sit and wonder, “Am I crazy to be heading the opposite way?”
It’s Wednesday night, and I’m packing my bags and checking them twice. I thought we were in the clear this year. No such luck with a late-season monster headed straight for Florida. This time, it’s Wilma, a category 5 for the record books, and no one seems to know exactly where she will go. I’m driving to Naples tomorrow morning, as that seems to be a possible path, to ride out with residents this formidable storm when it makes expected landfall by the weekend.
Here in Tampa, people seem not to be in a panic. This afternoon’s trip to Publix found water in short supply, but plenty of bread, milk, batteries and Halloween candy on hand. Gas lines weren’t bad near downtown off Kennedy Boulevard. That’s a relief, but one that could change if Wilma’s track wobbles more north.
I heard someone today say that this could be our Charley. Remember how last year every forecast had it heading right up Tampa Bay? Then, at the last minute, Charley took a sudden turn into Charlotte County and tore inland, destroying homes and businesses in towns like Arcadia, before finally exiting to the Atlantic. I was there, and it was scary. Residents wandered about, their hair wet and matted down, staring in disbelief where buildings once stood as many belongings floated down the street. I pray that isn’t the case this time. I don’t want to see anyone face such a nightmare, but at least right now, those living in the projected path are prepared, or making preparations.
Tonight, I’ll do the same for my house, and hope for the best.