- The Washington Times - Monday, October 24, 2005

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — For a few hours in the middle of the night, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico converged in the streets of this island city as Hurricane Wilma gave many residents a scare as few other storms have done.

The water rose quickly and to unexpected heights, rapidly reaching the tops of cars in some areas and seeping into homes that owners had thought would never flood.

Like most in this carefree place, Derek Epperly was not too worried about Wilma when he went to bed Sunday night. Officials said nine out of 10 residents in the Keys stayed put, despite a mandatory evacuation order.

Awakened by the howling wind, he was stunned.

“It was about knee-deep in the house,” Mr. Epperly said. He put his dogs in a large plastic bin and waded out of trouble, holding the bin over his head.

Farther west, near the part of Key West that marks the southernmost point in the United States, Chris Elwell was awakened by the sound of his car alarm going off. He also was surprised, and heartsick, by what he saw when he went outside.

His black Porsche Boxster, a sweet little machine he’s had for only six months, was almost completely underwater.

“Within 45 minutes, it went from 6 inches to 4 or 5 feet,” Mr. Elwell said early yesterday, removing items from his waterlogged trunk.

By yesterday afternoon, much of the water had receded. There were isolated spots where roads remained flooded, but for the most part Key Westers shifted from being shocked to being relieved as they looked around and saw little structural damage. And some felt vindicated for staying in defiance of orders to evacuate.

“If it doesn’t get any worse than this, there’s no point in leaving,” said Fran Masat, who was wringing out towels he had used to soak up the water that covered his terrazzo floor.

And the island’s beautiful weather had returned.

“With this nice breeze, why, she’ll dry out by tonight,” Mr. Masat said of his one-story home. “That’s the advantage of living on an island. You know you’re going to get water, but it’s not like it’s going to sit here.”

Even Mr. Epperly, who believed his home was ruined by the water, was not too worried because he has flood insurance. Hours after the storm passed, he was out riding around the neighborhood on his scooter, checking out which streets were flooded.

Many residents also turned their thoughts to getting the town’s tourist economy going again. Waiters, bartenders, entertainers, salesmen — all have been without tourists to serve for almost a week.

The town’s annual Fantasy Fest, a 10-day carnival of drag queen pageants and body-painted women that draws 70,000 visitors, was supposed to start late last week and now is in limbo.

But many residents here say hurricanes are the price paid for living where the two seas come together.

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