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Florida Keys holdouts rethink decision to stay

Some Florida Keys residents had second thoughts about their decision to stay put after Hurricane Wilma isolated them and submerged streets under water up to 5 feet deep.
The streets of Key West, Fla., were flooded after Hurricane Wilma battered the city on Monday.Lynne Sladky / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some residents of the Florida Keys were rethinking their refusal to evacuate for Hurricane Wilma on Monday after the storm isolated them, submerged streets under water up to 5 feet deep and turned out their lights.

No travel was possible in or out of Key West. Jay Gewin, assistant to the mayor, said 35 percent of the city was flooded, including the airport, and U.S. 1, the lone highway connecting the islands to each other and the mainland, was flooded near Islamorada.

Wilma made landfall before dawn in southwest Florida as a Category 3 storm, stronger than expected, and knocked out power to the entire Keys island chain.

“A bunch of us that are the old-time Key Westers are kind of waking up this morning, going ‘Well, maybe I should have paid a little more attention,”’ restaurant owner Amy Culver-Aversa said.

However, she soon had a generator going and was giving out coffee, and she expected to reopen by Tuesday.

While Wilma’s eye came ashore at Cape Romano on the Gulf Coast, about 95 miles to the north of Key West, the hurricane’s strongest wind was on the south side, near the Keys.

Overwhelming majority stayed
Officials said more than 90 percent of year-round Keys residents refused to heed evacuation orders.

“We’re not New Orleans,” said Elaine Chinnis, walking her dogs along Key West’s Duval Street a few hours before Wilma struck.

Islanders are hurricane weary — they’ve dealt with four this year alone — and hurricane savvy. But while the previous three storms caused little damage in the Keys, Wilma was worse than residents expected.

Ricky Cartwright said he probably would have left if he had known how bad the storm would be. Water up to his bed forced him to flee his home in the middle of the night and destroyed his possessions.

“All my clothes, all my shoes, everything,” he said.

Key West streets were flooded four blocks inland from the shore.

“Within 45 minutes, it went from 6 inches to 4 or 5 feet deep,” said Chris Elwell, whose new Porsche Boxster was submerged to its roof.

“It was like a train coming on both sides of me,” said Key West bartender Noah Ackerman, who tried to ride out the storm in a house elevated on stilts but gave up and left to seek better shelter.

“All the streets are rivers,” said Ackerman, who was given a ride to a shelter by passing police. “You can see water just rushing through.”

Islanders said they weren’t being cavalier when they refused to leave, they just weren’t afraid of Wilma.

“It seems like we know more than the weather people,” Chinnis said before Wilma’s arrival. “They seem to over-exaggerate everything.”

That attitude frustrates public officials.

“We’ve been preaching this for decades, and you know, the government can only do so much,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “I don’t know how we motivate people.”