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At a South Florida night spot, one last party before Wilma

That is, unless the owner of Ocean View Lounge decides to ride out the storm, doors open. Could happen.

Published October 24, 2005

ISLAMORADA - After he packed the car and nailed the shutters over his windows, Ken Keidel needed to do one more thing Saturday night to prepare for Wilma: go to a hurricane party.

So he headed to the Ocean View Lounge, a tiny, raucous bar on a dark stretch of U.S. 1, halfway between Miami and Key West. It's a locally famous place, one of those quintessential Florida Keys bars where the band plays obscure Rolling Stones songs and nearly everyone is barefoot, or shirtless, or both.

It's also known for having the Keys' oldest liquor license and for its clientele heavy with retired football players. The owner is Gary Dunn, a former Pittsburgh Steeler.

It's also the only place around that hosts a hurricane party. On Saturday night, the bar was packed. At least four retired NFL players milled about, a few Harley-Davidsons roared in the parking lot and the band struck up a Linda Ronstadt tune at 9:30 p.m.

"This is a tradition," said Keidel, who is 55. "Why sit there and watch the news over and over again?"

Like many in the bar, Keidel plans to leave today. He and his wife spent Hurricane Andrew in a bathtub with their cat. It's not something they want to do over.

"We have never evacuated, but this one seems a little different," he said, adding that he is especially concerned about the storm surge if Wilma strikes Naples, to the north.

Others weren't so worried.

John Harrison, 51, has lived in Islamorada for most of his life. He enjoyed a fat cigar and a Jack Daniels during the party, and didn't even glance at the Weather Channel on the TV.

With a wide grin and a shrug, he dismissed the idea of leaving.

"I'll ride it out," Harrison said. "The way I've always done."

The town of Islamorada is actually made up of several small islands; Harrison lives on one spit of land named Plantation Key, about 3 miles north of the bar. While his house is several feet above sea level - and two stories - everything around here is surrounded by either Florida Bay or the Florida Straits, making the entire place, even the Ocean View, vulnerable to flooding.

There's a reason why it's called the Ocean View Lounge; the bar used to overlook the ocean. But in 1960, Hurricane Donna blew through, and blew the bar across U.S. 1 to the bay side. The old owners rebuilt the bar on the bay side, and there it sits, ready for hurricane parties.

"We sat here during Irene in '99 with the back door open," said Harrison. "We drank and watched all the stuff fly by."

Dunn said he is thinking of staying open. He's making his final decision at 2 p.m. today.

Dunn knows that if he stays open, people will come to drink the storm away. Once, a guy rode his bike to the bar in the middle of a hurricane.

"I'll stay open if it's maybe a Category 1, or a 2, at the most," he said.

[Last modified October 24, 2005, 01:00:06]

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