October 25, 2005

Houseboat village near Miami gets worst of Wilma

By Jim Loney

NORTH BAY VILLAGE, Florida (Reuters) - As Hurricane Wilma
sank his houseboat and smashed others nearby to splinters,
musician Rob Lerner rescued his guitars and his drums and said
goodbye to his little piece of paradise.

"This place was really an oasis," Lerner, 35, said of his
little houseboat community in North Bay Village, which suffered
some of the worst destruction seen in greater Miami after
Wilma's damaging rampage across Florida.

"Our boat was one of the last to go down."

Clustered around a wooden dock now twisted like a licorice
stick, the houseboats were tossed into an angry jumble, some
torn to pieces, others sitting on the bottom of Biscayne Bay.
Perhaps half of the two dozen boats in the tightly knit
community were destroyed while others were badly damaged.

Residents have little hope the friendly houseboat village
on Biscayne Bay between the larger cities of Miami and Miami
Beach will survive. Many municipalities in Florida are trying
to discourage houseboats because of environmental concerns, and
other such communities destroyed by past hurricanes have not
been rebuilt.

In North Bay Village, gutted houseboats spilled their
contents into the bay. Towering heaps of wood, furniture,
appliances, fuel tanks, rowboats and jet skis washed to and fro
on the tide, sprinkled with more personal touches -- antiques,
clothing, bottles of shampoo, bleach and sunscreen.


"There's an $18,000 leather couch under there," said Tom
Wuestenfeld, pointing to the soggy chaos as he stood beside his
five-bedroom, four-bath houseboat, now sitting on the bottom.

"That was one of the most beautiful, luxurious places you
could imagine," said Jackie Wuestenfeld, who lived for eight
years in the three-story floating home, now canted at a
wrenching angle, only its top floor completely visible above
the surface.

The Wuestenfelds said they had put the vessel up for sale
and had found a buyer willing to pay their $495,000 asking
price the day before Wilma hit. Now, they figure, it's a total
loss and mostly uninsured.

"We love the water. Maybe we'll try to get another place, a
townhouse with a dock," Tom Wuestenfeld said, sadly.

The night Wilma hit, Rob Lerner's wife and 6-year-old
daughter took refuge on shore but Rob stayed on his houseboat
as long as he could, abandoning it only when the crashing and
splintering of the boats and the howl of the wind became

"It sounded like a freight train driven by the devil," said
Lerner, clad in a diving wetsuit as he searched for belongings.

His two-story houseboat had a recording studio on the top
floor and fabulous views of the sunset across the bay, Lerner
said. "It weathered a lot of storms. This time, the wind was
just too much."

In addition to his instruments, Lerner managed to rescue
recordings from the sound studio and a photograph of a drum set
he designed and delivered six months ago to the home of fellow
musician Lenny Kravitz. Lerner had hoped to hear from the
famous rocker so they could talk music - but never did.

"Lenny, call me," Lerner said. "That would really be a
silver lining to this."