In 2005, for a brief moment in the climatological eons of Earth, the atmosphere in the western Caribbean Sea aligned to build from water and heat the most intense Atlantic hurricane recorded by man.
The storm, the last to bear the name Wilma, was unmatched in pace of escalation, pressure, and an eye that grew from a beady 2.5 miles, the smallest on record, to a gaping 75-mile wide maw that swallowed nearly all of Palm Beach County.
Ten years after the cyclone’s Oct. 24 landfall near Cape Romano, and the four-and-a-half hour buzz saw through the state, meteorologists remain astonished by the deadly late season surprise.
“It was unprecedented,” said National Hurricane Center senior storm specialist Richard Pasch, who watched Wilma’s evolution from the center’s bunker in Miami. “If you could designate a hurricane a Category 6, that’s probably what we would have said Wilma was.”
By the grace of the Yucatan Peninsula, which bore the brunt of Wilma’s strongest winds, Florida’s west coast was hit with lower Category 3-force gales of 120 mph. By the time Wilma reached Palm Beach County, it was a strong Category 2 storm.
That was enough.
Wilma tossed hundreds of railroad cars from their tracks in Clewiston, left more than 6 million Floridians without electricity, leveled a Lake Worth church, blew trailer parks to bits and blasted windows out of condos on A1A.
In the confusing days that followed landfall, when Palm Beach County was plunged into black nights and cold showers, the magnitude of Wilma and its place in history were hard to appreciate.
Water lines snaked through parking lots and gas stations went dry. Lost a roof? Good luck finding someone to put it back on. Be home by 9 p.m. or risk a curfew arrest. And neighborly goodwill turned icy as generators separated the haves from the have-nots.
A decade later, many memories of the early morning storm and its aftermath remain raw.
“I wrote letters to everyone looking for help, and I cursed them all,” said 84-year-old Estelle Grayes, who in 2005 found herself with a Wilma-wrecked condo in Century Village near Boca Raton. “The outside people didn’t help. The Congress people, and all that baloney. I was in such a shock.”
Grayes said she was out of her home for more than a year. When it was finally fixed and she was resettled, she had a heart attack. She blames it on Wilma.
“While you are going through it, you survive it,” she said about the storm and aftermath. “Then it hits you.”
Wilma’s birth a ‘remarkable, explosive strengthening episode’
In October 2005, the nation had watched Hurricane Dennis slam Pensacola in July with 120 mph winds, New Orleans succumb to Hurricane Katrina in August, and Hurricane Rita run up the border between Texas and Louisiana as a Category 3 storm.
Then, on Oct. 15, a circulation of thunderstorms about 190 nautical miles east of Grand Cayman became a tropical depression.
Storms feed on the warm waters of the ocean and in the Caribbean that warm water goes down about 330 yards, providing ample fuel for a burgeoning storm, said Hugh Willoughby, a research professor at Florida International University and a retired 27-year veteran of the NOAA hurricane division.
On Oct. 17, the system was dubbed Tropical Storm Wilma, the 21st named storm of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season.
“Wilma was just in an ideal place,” Willoughby said. “It was over very warm water that stayed warm as the storm intensified and there was also very low shear.”
Within 24 hours, Wilma intensified from a 73 mph tropical storm to a 173 mph Category 5 hurricane. In the annals of the National Hurricane Center, Wilma is noted for its quick ramp up. In a matter of 5 hours and 23 minutes, the hurricane grew from 150 mph winds to 184 mph.
Pasch, who authored Wilma’s post mortem for the National Hurricane Center, described the increase as “a remarkable, explosive strengthening episode,” and “an unprecedented event for an Atlantic tropical cyclone.”
Near the same time, an Air Force Reserve crew was piloting a C-130 transport plane into the storm. The hurricane hunters measured the fierce winds, but were more shocked by something else.
Wilma’s central air pressure was 882 millibars: a record low value for a hurricane in the Atlantic basin.
Air pressure is a measure of a hurricane’s intensity, the amount of power in the vacuum formed by winds roaring toward the eye. The lower the pressure, the more powerful a storm.
Willoughby, who flew into Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, remembers being floored by Wilma’s pressure. Gilbert was the reigning record-holder for low pressure at the time at 888 millibars.
While Wilma’s air pressure was unique in intensity, its peak wind speeds of 185 mph are topped by 1979’s Hurricane Allen, which maxed out at 190 mph.
Still, not only was Wilma’s low pressure astonishing, but its descent to 882 millibars was “by far the largest in available records for these periods going back to 1851.”
“Storms like Wilma, they are all the way at the top of a Cat 5 and pushing into a new category,” Pasch said.
‘When we heard glass breaking, we went running into the family room’
Wilma reached its peak sustained wind of 185 mph on Oct. 19. The storm weakened to a Category 4 storm when it made landfall on the island of Cozumel Oct. 21. From there, it crossed the Yucatan Peninsula, emerging into the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 2 storm.
Peggy Jupp, of Royal Palm Beach, was in Kentucky burying her brother and warily watching Hurricane Wilma’s approach.
Because it was forecast on Oct. 23 to hit the southwest coast as a Category 2, many assumed it would be only a Category 1 storm when it reached Palm Beach County. (The official discussion of the National Hurricane Center noted that the storm could be a major hurricane when it hit the coast.)
Jupp, who returned home late Oct. 23 decided against putting up the heavy plywood that she and her husband used at the time to secure their windows.
But Wilma defied forecasters, bullying through a strong wind shear that tried to cut it down, and smashed into the west coast as a Category 3 storm with 120 mph winds. Its race across the state included unpopulated areas of the Everglades, which provided less friction to reduce winds. It hit at the border of Palm Beach County as a strong Category 2 hurricane.
“About an hour into the storm, we realized it was more,” Jupp said. “When we heard glass breaking, we went running into the family room.”
A piece of Jupp’s wooden privacy fence had punched through her window, sending Wilma’s powerful winds into her home — a force that can lift off a roof from the inside. Jupp and her husband struggled in the winds to get a board over the window.
She said she doesn’t trust forecasts anymore. The couple also bought hurricane shutters.
“We will never be caught unprepared again and we distrust predictions,” Jupp said. “Hurricanes can change in an instant.”
Today, Jupp dons a lucky hurricane ring every June 1 to ward off storms. The circle with swirls is a lucky charm she keeps on until the end of the storm season.
Still, Jupp was lucky in one sense. Her electricity was restored within 12 hours after Wilma. Many parts of the county went more than a week without power. The last was restored about 19 days following the storm.
Power outages plagued the county
Since then, FPL has spent more than $2 billion to strengthen its system, clear vegetation from more than 120,000 miles of power lines and inspected more than 1.1 million power poles. FPL now has 85,429 concrete poles, a 22.8 percent increase from April 2006.
“I watched the light poles bend over,” said Pahokee resident Larry Wright about the day Wilma tore through. “It took a couple hours because they are anchored to the sidewalk, but they went over.”
Pahokee, South Bay and Belle Glade were hit particularly hard by Wilma. Trailer parks, warehouses, community centers and the marinas in Pahokee and Belle Glade were destroyed.
Wright, who was living in the shadow of the 35-foot high Herbert Hoover Dike, never feared Lake Okeechobee would come rushing through. In fact, he watched Wilma from his front porch, the dike protecting him from the worst of the storm.
Afterward, he went downtown where traffic was snarled because of downed street lights. For two weeks he stood in the center of an intersection directing cars from dawn to dusk.
“I started just to get everyone through but people kept coming,” said Wright, who scoffs at the official report that found Wilma was only a Category 2 in Palm Beach County. “Everybody out here is going to tell you that’s bull. It was a 3 or a 4.”
Pasch acknowledges there was some controversy about the wind measurements, and said it’s very possible winds were gusting to 115 mph at 32 feet – why condos were severely damaged.
“A strong Category 2 storm is nothing to sneeze at,” Pasch said.
His own home in North Miami lost its roof during Wilma. He was working at the National Hurricane Center and was unaware of the damage until after the storm.
“It was probably the worst day of my life,” Pasch said. “Wilma was a pretty bad storm, that’s all I can say.”
Records broken during 2005 storm season
• Most tropical storms: 28 (broke 1933 record of 21)
• Most hurricanes: 15 (broke 1969 record of 12)
• Most hurricane names to be retired: 5 (broke previous records of 4 in 1955, 1995, and 2004)
• Most major hurricanes to hit the U.S.: 4 (broke previous record of 3 in 1893, 1909, 1933, 1954, and 2004)
• Most damage: approximatedly $150 billion (broke previous record of $50 billion set in 1992 and 2004)
• Latest end to hurricane season: Jan. 6, 2006. (broke previous record of Jan. 5, 1955)
Source: Weather Underground
Wilma by the numbers
• Peak sustained wind speed: 185 mph on Oct. 19
• Eye of storm during peak: diameter of 2.3 miles, smallest on record
• Minimum central pressure at peak: 882 mb, lowest on record
• Eye of storm as it passed Palm Beach County: diameter of 75 miles
• Peak sustained wind speed in Florida: 92 mph at Lake Okeechobee
• Cost to insurers: $10.3 billion
• Overall damage estimate: $21 billion
• FPL customers who lost electricity: 6 million
• FPL poles that fell or snapped: 11,000
• Time from tropical storm to Category 5: 24 hours
• Time it took to cross Florida: Under 5 hours
• Deaths directly attributed to Wilma: 12 in Haiti, 1 in Jamaica, 4 in Mexico, 5 in Florida and 1 in the Bahamas
• Number of blue tarps distributed by FEMA in Palm Beach County: 5,830
• Days to restore all of Palm Beach County’s power: 19
• Days of school missed by Palm Beach County public school students: 10
Source: National Hurricane Center, Palm Beach Post archives