They had little, now even less

In the farming communities that surround Lake Okeechobee, hard-hit residents try to figure out what to do next.

Published October 26, 2005

CLEWISTON - Life has always been hard in the small sugar towns near Lake Okeechobee. But Hurricane Wilma destroyed the few comforts residents had.

Clewiston is now defined by what's missing: signs, homes, walls, roofs. Mobile homes constitute 42 percent of Hendry County's housing, and Wilma destroyed or damaged many of them.

In Belle Glade, in Palm Beach County, the fire station's roof blew off and Glades General Hospital had to be evacuated after the generator failed. Airplanes flipped over and mobile homes burst open.

In Glades County, the small city of Moore Haven is a wrecked heap of collapsed gas stations, shredded businesses and mobile homes picked up from their foundations and tossed aside.

These tiny communities now make up a circle of sorrow around Lake Okeechobee.

And the people who live there wonder what they will do next.

"It's gone, it's gone. Everything's gone," said Simon Preston, 58, a utility worker at U.S. Sugar who has a large hole in the roof of his Clewiston home and no idea where he is going to sleep.

Emergency mangers are still tabulating the devastation. On Monday, Hendry officials marked 145 homes in Clewiston as destroyed, and they still have much terrain to inspect.

Meanwhile, the slow and confusing effort to deliver electricity and emergency relief has infuriated residents.

"First they said there was no water coming, then they turned around and said some water was coming, then they said it would be two days before any water got here," said Stanley Day, 41, who said he waited in line in Belle Glade for several hours.

When a truckload each of ice and bottled water arrived shortly after noon, people yelled and cursed and accused officials of being stingy.

A police officer and volunteers yelled back, accusing some of wanting seconds. National Guard troops stood by with rifles across their chests.

"They say it's going to be between five and 30 days before we get light," said 47-year-old Marvin Walker, who drives a tractor on a sugar farm. "And I don't know if we can make it like that."

And he might be out of work. The boss told workers it could be weeks before they can work again.

Hurricane Wilma flattened thousands of acres of sugar cane that once stood 14 feet high, ready for harvesting. Now it is crushed down to a few feet.

"It was the most beautiful crop we ever had," said Kenneth Hartwick, 55, a Belle Glade native who has spent 28 years in the sugar business and is a supervisor at a mill.

"It's blown over to the point where some of it's broke off, and the roots are out of the ground."

Housing also is in short supply.

Wilma destroyed entire rows of homes in the predominantly black Clewiston section of Harlem. Roofs are blown away, walls crushed or peeled back. Little remains on some blocks but soggy heaps of furniture, clothes and pink insulation.

Still, some plan to keep living in such places because they have nothing else.

Detrick Pass' house has a cracked roof, holes in the walls and blasted windows. He has three young children to care for, including a 4-month-old.

"I just couldn't believe it," said Pass, a 21-year-old cashier at Popeye's Chicken. "But I guess I'll stay here. I can't afford to go anywhere else."

Joel Lopez, 41, a tractor driver with U.S. Sugar, had just gathered what clothes and supplies he could from the ruins of his destroyed mobile home and loaded them into garbage bags that he tossed into the back of his pickup.

"I have nothing to do now," he said softly. "Where am I going to go?"

His wife, Paulina, 39, just sobbed.