Joe West has spent a lifetime in the hospitality industry. So when Hurricane Irma began ramping up, he did what he does best: He opened his doors.
And oh, what doors they are.
West, who spent a decade as dean of Florida International University’s hospitality and tourism school, and his wife, Liz, along with two other couples rode out the storm high above the mangroves in West’s specially built hurricane-resistant stilt home in this tiny Everglades fishing village.
West, who now teaches hospitality part time at Miami Dade College, knew his neighbors had mocked his dream house.
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“They all gave me [expletive] about building a fortress and now they’re staying here,” he said, laughing as he and his neighbors sat in his garage, whose floors showed only traces of two inches of muck that Irma had pushed in.
Indeed, they gratefully accepted his invite to stay at the “West Five Star Evacuation Center” — so called by Liz, who awarded the two-bedroom home five stars for its cellphone charging station and “free wireless,” among a host of other amenities —including a reserve of alcohol and board games to wile away the hours.
While other homes were ripped apart by wind three times as fast as freight trains and flooded with water so fierce it toppled full propane tanks, the three couples, three dogs, three cats and six fish had a very different experience in the West Five Star Evacuation Center.
Inspired by Donna
It looks like the average Florida stilt home, but its 21-foot-tall stilts are steel-reinforced and sit on top of pilings driven 50 feet into sandy ground. Its windows were built to sustain winds of up to 200 mph. It’s equipped with a backup generator capable of supporting satellite TV. The walls, floors and ceilings are solid concrete, and the outlets in the limited space on the ground floor are at eye level rather than close to the ground, so they don’t short out at high tide.
“A decently sized sinkhole could open up underneath this house — it would still stand,” Joe West said.
Its inspiration was Hurricane Donna, a Category 4 storm that wreaked havoc on South Florida on Sept. 10, 1960, 57 years before Irma did the same. Joe West lived through so-called “Deadly Donna,” which killed 50 people in the United States when he was a teenager, and he wasn’t going to let a hurricane catch him off guard. He told the builder he wanted “a house that can withstand Donna.”
He got one — and ignored the naysayers who said a hurricane-proof house was unnecessary.
Yet West was astounded by Irma’s punch, even as the group of six — who were given a nickname unfit for print — largely acted out a pleasant weekend night. They played poker with a box full of chips and bags of loose change, sipped liquor at the fully stocked bar and casually shifted their attention between the TV and the storm outside.
“It was fun until the water started rising,” Kevin Dykes said. “Then it was scary as [expletive].”
Dykes had never been through a hurricane with impact-resistant glass, and said the ability to watch a hurricane carry out its destruction was equal parts exciting and terrifying. After some time at the window, Joe West said Dykes told him he needed to stop watching.
Lori Dykes, 57, said they watched as the flooding and wind carried away a dumpster, a golf cart, multiple canoes, coolers and a 10-foot-tall gator that once stood in the front lawn of a shop down the street.
The six had tied pieces of cloth to a palm tree outside, saying that was the level water had to hit before they’d need to switch off the generator. They watched as the water rose 2 1/2 feet in two hours, debating at what point they would have to commandeer a boat.
Dykes said he originally wanted to evacuate, but he hadn’t known how to get out of Irma’s way. He knew he needed to get out of the state completely, but the airports were shutting down and he kept seeing reports of gas stations out of fuel. Florida’s border with Georgia was 418 miles away, and the nearest shelter was Immokalee High School, 40 miles away.
He appreciated West’s hospitality, but said it would likely be his last storm — at least in the Everglades outpost.
“I knew the wind would be bad, but I’ve never seen a surge before, so I didn’t think it would be that bad. Now I know what a surge is,” Dykes said. “I told my wife we’re going to move.”
Their adoptive home is a remote fishing village deep in the Everglades, nestled amid mangroves. Dozens of stone-crabbers are based on its rivers and the housing is a mix of vacation homes perched on stilts and a trailer park for working people that took a battering from Irma.
In 1983, the forgotten hideaway landed in the headlines when much of the town — 28 people — and half of its fishing boats were seized in a predawn drug bust involving 200 federal drug agents and Collier County sheriff’s deputies. The arrests were part of a two-year investigation dubbed “Operation Everglades.”
News reports from the time said the town served as the perfect spot for planes en route from Central America and the Caribbean to dump marijuana for fishing boats hiding amid the mangroves to retrieve.
‘Where do you go?’
Liz West, who grew up in North Florida and is accustomed to storms, said neither she nor her husband considered leaving the low-lying area at the western end of Everglades National Park during the run-up to the storm.
“I mean, where do you go?” Liz West said. “They’re always changing the course of the storm. You get on the highway and everyone runs out of gas. No thank you.”
“We weren't being reckless,” she added later. “We were just already prepared when this was built.”