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Hurricane Wilma blog

Editor's note: The Hurricane Wilma blog is compiled by CNN reporters and producers covering the storm.

Chokoloskee: The Punta Gorda of Wilma

Wilma destroyed many homes on the small island of Chokoloskee.



Disasters (General)

Wednesday, October 26; Posted 5:45 p.m. ET
From Lisa Goddard, Chokoloskee, Florida

A badly hit area on the west coast of Florida and in many ways the only place that looks like it was hit by the full force of a Category 3 storm is a tiny 162-acre island called Chokoloskee.

Correspondent Amanda Moyer and I were stunned by the massive and complete destruction of many homes on the island. We had driven extensively through Naples and Marco Island, and saw mostly minor damage like missing roof tiles, some twisted gas station awnings and downed trees. Everglades City, which is about 35 miles south of Naples and once a favorite fishing spot for Richard Nixon, was worse but most buildings are still intact.

Yet, just a few miles down the road from Everglades City, many parts of Chokoloskee are destroyed.

A storm surge of about 8 feet pushed out the bottom floors of two-story homes, leaving piles of wood, couches and some toys mashed together on the side of the road. Nearly all homes felt the water and thick Everglades mud rush through and then settle on everything inside.

Just 400 people live on the island year round. Many are fourth, fifth or sixth generation residents, often extended family of one another.

In hitting Chokoloskee, Wilma beat up on an old community of proud, working class people. Some fish or put out traps for stone crabs. Others work in Everglades tourism. The homes are well cared for and simple. Residents say many are uninsured because they couldn't afford the coverage.

While dozens are homeless, teams of families are slowly picking up, shoveling out the mud and helping a church on the island cook meals for what could be weeks or months of recovery.

Clawing through the storm

Craig Daniels, who lives on Chokoloskee Island, survived outside in storm surge waters during the height of Hurricane Wilma.

He is a sixth-generation resident and father of seven children. As Wilma's eye reached his home, Daniels, who has been through hurricanes before, decided to check on his tour boat business in Everglades City.

He made it there, but quickly saw the nearby river rising. As he raced back along a causeway in his truck, storm surge waves started tossing the vehicle. He opened his windows and positioned himself so the water shot him out of the car. For three to four hours he was smashed repeatedly into a field of Mangrove trees and kept clawing into the mud to gain ground.

He says waves were smashing onto him every three seconds at one point, pushing him face first into the roadway he was trying to crawl and walk through. Somehow, even after he thought this could be the end, Daniels made it to safety.

Now he is the talk of his town and his story likely to become legend on the small island.

And, despite his blistered hands and a shoulder that he still can't move, Daniels says he plans to stay for the next hurricane.

Rebuilding and responsibility

While many residents hit by Wilma on the east coast of Florida are eager for federal help, especially food and water, some in tough Everglades communities say they'd rather the agency stay away.

Barbara Stokes lives on Chokoloskee Island, where many of the residents are now homeless. She says the historic fishing town knows how to take care of itself and that it's the responsibility of people there to rebuild and survive. She says, as far as she goes, FEMA isn't needed or wanted.

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