Issue Date: 10/24/2005, Posted On: 10/24/2005

Lauderdale opening hinges on damage assessment

Hurricane Wilma roared across Florida this morning, lashing the southern peninsula with winds in excess of 100 mph, knocking out power and causing other disruptions for storm-weary residents.

Wilma crashed into the southwestern coast as a Category 3 hurricane around 6:30 a.m., weakening slightly as it raced toward Miami-Dade and Broward counties on the state’s Atlantic coast.

Even before the storm reached Florida, Wilma was already wreaking havoc on the start of the 46th annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show — long considered a bellwether for the marine industry and originally scheduled to open Thursday. Late last week, in anticipation of the storm, organizers postponed the start until Saturday, Oct. 29.

Show organizers today were shuttered in their homes, anxiously waiting for the storm to pass so damage can be assessed and cleanup efforts begun. The hurricane is expected to be offshore this afternoon, and to head north, possibly threatening New England.

“The storm is still here,” said Kaye Pearson, president of Yachting Promotions, which produces the Fort Lauderdale show, reached on his cell phone this morning. “Until it’s gone and we can assess the damage, we don’t know.”

Experts expect wind damage but say the state’s east coast will be spared damage from storm surge, since the storm is moving across the peninsula toward the Atlantic.

“The show was all buttoned up and ready as it will ever be for Hurricane Wilma,” Frank Herhold, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, which owns the show, said this morning in an interview by cell phone. “You do the very best you can in these situations.”

The movement of boats and equipment onto the show sites had been suspended since last Wednesday, and tents and other fixtures were removed. Organizers say they are prepared to use extra crews to ensure that the show opens this weekend. The production, originally scheduled to end Oct. 31, will be extended by one day to Nov. 1, so exhibitors will only be losing a day.

One hurdle that will have to be overcome for a weekend show opening is the widespread loss of power. Florida Power & Light is reporting more than 2.5 million customers without power, including 1.8 million in Broward and Dade counties, according to news reports. Those reports quote FP&L officials as saying it could be weeks before power is restored.

"We have enough generators to get started,“said Herhold.

As far as setup for the show is concerned, "Kaye’s prepared to move everything back,” says Herhold. “If anybody can make the show happen, he’s the guy.”

Herhold says community support has been overwhelming. City officials, county officials and the U.S. Coast Guard have been working with show organizers to develop plans to ensure production of the 46th annual show. Organizers also have received numerous pledges of equipment and staffing to help the show get under way this week. The National Marine Manufacturers Association, for example, has offered assistance from its Miami International Boat Show staff, Herhold says.

JoAnn W. Goddard

[email protected]