Residents return to battered barrier island

Cocoa Beach residents get first look at damage suffered on Sunday

In The Wake Of Frances

September 07, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COCOA BEACH, Fla. -- Kathy Kneuer ducked under a mass of hanging cables and aimed her camera at a chunk of roof sitting on the living room floor of the beachfront rental unit she owns on this barrier island.

Hurricane Frances had peeled the roof off the apartment, broken a railing that faces the Atlantic Ocean and carried an air conditioning unit clear to the other side of the parking lot. She was documenting the damage for insurance purposes.

"You want to say you're prepared, and you tell yourself the worst could happen," Kneuer said. "But when you get out here and look at what's ahead of you ...."

Kneuer's words echoed those of many who were allowed onto Florida's barrier islands yesterday for their first look at what Frances had done. Like others, she said she was happy the storm didn't kill many people or flatten many buildings. But that relief didn't make picking through the rubble much fun.

Some who rode out the storm with nothing but a few feet of beach between them and the ocean said Frances was among the most harrowing experiences of their lives.

"I was in Vietnam, but man, this mother was scary," said Walter Wills, who endured the storm in an apartment next to Kneuer's. "I was there by myself in the total darkness. And it would stop for a few minutes but then those winds would start up again like HOOOM!"

Though most buildings survived without major structural damage, the storm left plenty of nasty calling cards. On the town's main beachside road, a roof that had been torn asunder hung from a traffic light pole. A toppled business sign was held up only by the palm tree that had impaled it.

Residents also encountered more amusing oddities as they poured back into town around noon. The storm had slammed sand against beachfront businesses at such velocity that several inches of residue remained, allowing beachcombers to trace messages. "Julia survived Frances," one said. "Bring it on Ivan," said another, alluding to the brewing storm that forecasters say could be headed toward Florida.

Wind-blown portable toilets turned up in all sorts of places they did not belong.

Some officials had expressed concern about beach erosion before the storm, but local residents said their beach looked largely unchanged by Frances.

Police had barred the causeway from the mainland to Cocoa Beach for almost 24 hours. Cars spanned the length of a bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, waiting for police cruisers to move aside.

"I don't know why they're keeping us off like this," said Todd Conner, a Cocoa Beach resident who had skipped town with his surfboards.

"I had to protect these," he said, gesturing to the boards.

One of the first sights drivers encountered after crossing was a rowdy line of about 50 people waiting to buy beer at Yogi's Discount Food and Beverage. It was one of the last stores to close Saturday and one of the first to reopen yesterday, even though there was no electricity to keep the beer cold.

"This has just drug on so long," said Robert Henry, staring at the line from his bicycle. Henry, who helps run a beachfront homeless shelter, said he had passed the storm cooking pancakes, sausage and bacon on his gas stove.

Anyone listening to a car radio heard repeated tornado warnings for central Florida interspersed with ads for the scads of insurance adjusters descending on the state.

Father and son Bill and Justin Grillo pulled up to the strip mall property they own to find that the roof from Justin's section was strewn along the sidewalk.

"It's very minor compared to what it could have been," said Justin Grillo.

"Yeah, he needed to get a new roof anyway," his dad said.

At Kneuer's building, residents wasted no time beginning work on their damaged roofs.

Ken Trelour said he had watched the roof peel off slat by slat from the fifth floor of an apartment building next door. He said the storm had shattered a skylight in the unit where he was staying, "and it started swirling around in there like The Exorcist."

He said he dashed into the room to pick up valuables -- to the horror of friends, who shouted, "Ken, you're going to get sucked out of the skylight."

Residents laughed as they exchanged such wild tales.

"All in all, I guess we're pretty lucky," Kneuer said.

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