By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Leaning on an aluminum cane and dressed in crisp black slacks and loafers, she trudged up the stairs into the lobby. There was a sprig of leaves in her hair from her trek through the waist-high thicket of felled trees blocking the building's entrance.
"Welcome to the crazy house," said Fred, one of the guards. His shirt, normally a crisp white, was crumpled, and he had a bloody gouge over his left eye. He explained that he and five other guards had to rescue the residents from six of the units after the hurricane shattered the glass exterior walls, transforming the apartments into vacuum chambers. "Going in those places was like walking into Poltergeist," he added. "We had to throw all our weight against the doors just to open them."
Many residents holed up in their closets. No one was badly hurt, but a flying plastic container slammed Fred in the head while he rescued a couple and their baby daughters.
Then Fred and Hallie traveled to the twelfth floor to inspect one of the worst-hit apartments. A gold placard bearing the number 1257 dangled off the front door, and shards of glass littered the carpet. Inside, the gleaming hardwood floors had been swept clean of all furniture. The winds had sucked them out through a hole that once was a wall of windows.
By 8:30 a.m. Wilma had pulverized at least a dozen houseboats, including all the vessels docked at the Bayshore Yacht & Tennis Club marina next door to Harbor West in North Bay Village. In fact, Wilma had completely washed away the Bayshore marina's wood dock. The houseboat denizens were also worried about Clement Mikelis, an 81-year-old World War II veteran who was still inside his boat when it sank.
When the sky began to clear shortly before noon, onlookers and a CNN news crew had gathered to watch as fire rescue personnel searched for Mikelis among the ruins. For an hour firefighters sawed and hacked their way through the vessel's wooden roof.
Then a North Bay Village cop driving an unmarked silver Ford Mustang annoyingly blared his police sirens in a feeble attempt to force the onlookers to return to their vehicles.
Finally the rescue workers located Mikelis, who was sitting in a lounge chair, dressed in his blue pajamas and knee-high white socks.
On the battered dock, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Lt. Eric Baum didn't waste any time calling television stations to ensure media coverage of his boys pulling off their daring rescue. "We're about to wheel him out, so get here now," Baum was overheard telling a news desk assignment editor.
At 12:45 p.m. at least five camera operators recorded the money shot of Mikelis being carried by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue from his sunken boat to the waiting ambulance parked in the street outside the Harbor West Apartments. On the seawall, Mikelis's neighbors cheered with chants of "All right, Clem!" and "We love you, man!"
At day's end, Jackie Wuestenfeld stood on the buckled dock next to the remains of her houseboat, a hulking structure with taupe clapboard siding and a pitched roof. Its faade had been sheared off, its roof peeled open like a tin can, and its bottom two stories submerged in the bay.
"Is this yours?" asked a perky blond neighbor standing a few feet away and holding up a small painting of a red-rock mountain she'd fished out of the water.
"Sure is," Jackie said, taking a swig of a Diet Coke and a puff on her cigarette. "That's a famous mountain in Arizona. It was in 54 John Wayne movies."
Jackie, a spunky entrepreneur with a mop of curly red hair and leathery brown skin, lived with her husband Tom in the 3400-square-foot floating palace, which rose three stories above the marina and boasted five bedrooms, four bathrooms, walk-in closets, skylights, two massive decks, and oriental rugs scattered over hardwood floors.
Now all is lost, and one of their cats, an eighteen-year-old purebred Siamese, is missing.
Jackie bought the place for $100,000 more than a decade ago and invested $400,000 in it. She lived alone there until meeting Tom three years ago. It's been less than a year since they moved the boat from its spot in front of the Jockey Club to what would become its final resting spot in North Bay Village.
Although Jackie and Tom had installed high-end hurricane shutters and an $18,000 roof, they had no insurance. "Last time it was appraised, it was worth $2.3 million," she said. "We come away from this with nothing. I'm kind of over having a house ever."
Ted's Hideaway on South Beach opened at noon the day after the storm with two bartenders. By 12:30 p.m. a crowd consisting largely of grizzled men occupied every chair, drinking beer and munching potato chips. A pair of enormous Rottweilers happily chased each other around the bar, followed by a pint-size mutt.
Then a black pickup truck with oversize wheels pulled up on the sidewalk and opened its doors, channeling a soundtrack of house music into the plywood-covered bar.
James C. Beavers, a South Florida version of Norm from Cheers, grumbled somewhat at the arrival of the pickup. Beavers is a large man in a green T-shirt, fishing hat, and sunglasses. He lives above the Burger King on Fifth Street, an apartment he refers to as "Club BK."