Thursday, November 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Weather

When Irma hit Marco Island, it absorbed the punch. A few miles away things were different

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MARCO ISLAND — Day broke Monday over this wealthy resort town in southern Collier County with a surprising bit of good news.

Even after a direct hit from a Category 3 hurricane, Marco Island was still mostly standing.

Here, Martin Pilote was able to ride out the storm in his two-story waterfront house, putting up the shutters and listening to the wind whistle by.

It was a different story just across the bridge in mainland Collier County.

There, Charlene Garcia and her boyfriend, Justin Maschue, stopped their Nissan pickup truck at a pile of downed trees and began the quarter-mile trek to their home through a foot of water, wondering if it would be standing when they arrived.

For days, Hurricane Irma's track wandered from Miami to Tampa before ultimately settling on the island jutting out from the edge of southern Collier County.

Then it left most of the island intact, and instead wrecked the low-lying mainland behind it and nearby Everglades City, a swampy, middle-class bastion of old Florida, where shingles were ripped from roofs and storm surge of 4 to 5 feet flooded the streets.

Marco Island protrudes out from the state's southwest coast — as if to maximize its exposure to hurricanes — and all the beach resorts on S Collier Boulevard are built to withstand the tempests. The houses, many second homes, come with the high price tag of living where the wealthy vacation. They, too, are sturdy to hold up their value.

Not so for the low-lying areas on the mainland northeast of the island. There are no JW Marriotts or Hiltons within view. Sand is swapped for heavy vegetation.

In two nearby communities, just miles apart, Collier County residents saw Monday's sunrise after Irma differently. For some it brought relief. For others, sadness.

•••

On the mainland, Garcia and Maschue plunged out of the vehicle and into the water.

The couple had ridden out the storm in North Naples with Maschue's parents. The roads were dry on their drive south — a good omen for their home, which they'd only bought in May, Garcia thought. Then she saw the floodwaters.

The water seeped into their shoes as they walked. Finally, the couple turned the corner onto their street, Auto Ranch Road.

"It's still standing! F--- yes," said Maschue, 36, a mechanic. "That's a plus."

Every house in sight suffered at least minor damage. The house behind theirs was totally destroyed, a refrigerator sitting atop a heap of wall studs.

Their house was damaged but livable. Some siding had been sheared off by Irma's wind, leaving insulation exposed. The vinyl that covered the empty space below the manufactured home had been ripped away. Water had leaked into two of the bedrooms, leaving behind a musty smell.

One of their two palm trees had fallen. "These aren't twin palms anymore," Garcia lamented. "That one's a single."

She stood in the yard taking it all in, hand over her mouth. Her eyes squinted. She couldn't hold back the tears.

"I'm just very emotional," Garcia said.

She'd been in South Miami during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and on Marco Island for Wilma in 2005.

"I've seen what these storms can do," she said. "But when you own something of your own…"

She trailed off. "It could have been worse," she said, "but it just sucks that it's not better."

•••

Half a mile farther away from Marco Island, Jan Paul Concepción's family looked up at the sky and knew devastation was nearby.

Usually the canopy of trees is so thick that you couldn't see blue, he said. But Monday the trees were bare, the leaves ripped off by the 120 mph wind.

The mobile home his family rents was surrounded by a foot of water. It suffered some external damage, he said. Thankfully the inside was spared.

Not so for the adjacent home, where Concepción's grandmother lives. It sat on its side in the water.

"It's a total loss," he said.

The small community of mobile and prefabricated homes along Lake Park Boulevard where Concepción lives was laid to waste. On some lots, Irma left behind a foot of water. On others, only the skeletal remains of homes were left, broken and snapped.

The storm toppled two enormous trees by their root beds, leaving them lying flat with their bases exposed, like a resigned king in a chess game.

Concepción wasn't around to see his neighborhood's ruin. He and his family spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights in a hotel room in downtown Naples.

"We wouldn't have survived if we had stayed here," he said.

•••

Had Pilote known his home would take the storm on its nose, maybe he wouldn't have stayed on Marco Island. But he'd weathered Wilma in 2005 in Naples, so, he asked, "Why go?"

"I could sleep in my bed," the 56-year-old Quebec City native said. Plus, after the storm, "you can take care of business right away," he added.

Early Monday, he had already assessed the damage to his house: three broken windows and a garage door that almost collapsed but didn't. Good thing. Inside the garage were five motorcycles: a Harley-Davidson up on a lift that he was restoring, an old Honda Goldwing, two vintage bikes and a Kawasaki Ninja.

The bikes were fine, and so was his boat, parked in its slip behind the house. Pilote had a generator running and invited a friend over to charge up.

He thought back to 2005, and had no regrets for staying. "Wilma was tougher," he said.

Times staff writer Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @Josh_Solomon15.

   
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