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.
It’s been 11 years since the cyclone’s Oct. 24 landfall near Cape Romano, and the four-and-a-half hour buzz saw through the state, but Wilma remains etched in many memories.
“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 western Palm Beach County, it was a Category 2 storm.
While Florida’s record-breaking hurricane drought ended this year with Hurricane Hermine, which plowed into the Big Bend region with Category 1 winds, Wilma is the last Category 3 or higher to breach Florida coastline.
There was a scare earlier this month when Category 4 Matthew strafed the the east coast, but the storm never made landfall in Florida.
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.