October 19, 2005

Mix of bravado, fear as Wilma aims for Florida Keys

By Laura Myers

KEY WEST, Florida (Reuters) - Florida Keys residents,
renowned for their nonchalance in the face of hurricanes,
adopted a wait-and-see response on Wednesday as Wilma, the
fiercest storm yet, seemed set to bear down on the vulnerable

Officials in Key West, at the southernmost tip of the
United States, warned that an 11-foot (3.4 meter) storm surge
could swamp the low-lying chain of islands and wash out
sections of the only highway connecting the Keys to the Florida

Critically ill patients were flown to Alabama and
shopkeepers slowly boarded up their stores.

But some residents of the laid-back resort islands,
sometimes famed and sometimes derided for their indifference to
the whims of Mother Nature, paid little heed to the warnings.

"It's a Category 5 now, but it's 500 miles away. The
weathermen are clueless," said Jason Carron, 16, a fifth
generation "Conch," as native Key Westers are called after the
tough Conch mollusk.

"It's going to be a normal hurricane for us that we're used
to. It's nothing out of the ordinary."

Others weren't so sure.

Civil engineer Gary Bowman worried that most Key West
buildings wouldn't survive a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, the top
ranks on the five-step scale used to measure hurricane

"Probably short of the jail, I'm not aware of any Category
5 buildings," said Bowman, who planned to evacuate.

Mandatory evacuation orders for residents are scheduled to
begin Thursday, but authorities cannot force people to leave
their homes.

No storm shelters will open in the Keys. Instead, residents
will be taken by bus to a shelter at Florida International
University near Miami.

Tourism organizers postponed the start of Key West's annual
Fantasy Fest until Tuesday and shortened the usual 10-day event
to five days. The Halloween-pegged bacchanal pumps up the
tourism-driven economy of the Florida Keys.

"I could just about cry about this, right before Fantasy
Fest," said "Jade," a server at the rustic B.O.'s Fish Wagon
restaurant who depends on Fantasy Fest for earnings. "Many
people who live here and work here are renters and we can't
afford to evacuate."

Key West was hit by the most powerful hurricane in its
history on September 10, 1919, according to newspaper archives.
The storm killed more than 800, sweeping some out to sea.