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Collier County, Fla., Bears Brunt of Wilma

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Hurricane Wilma hit the west coast of Florida at dawn this morning as a Category 3 hurricane, moved across the state to the east coast, bringing heavy winds and rain. I spoke earlier today with Jim von Rinteln. He's emergency management coordinator of Collier County, Florida, where Wilma hit the Gulf Coast. Von Rinteln was in the county's hurricane command center just outside of Naples, and he said officials were still assessing the local damage.

Mr. JIM VON RINTELN (Emergency Management Coordinator, Collier County, Florida): Well, our wind-measuring device departed the roof at 9:10 in the morning, and it registered 121 miles an hour--was its last registration.

BLOCK: That's an interesting choice of words, `departed the roof.'

Mr. VON RINTELN: Yeah, it did. That's when it stopped registering, and it--we went up to investigate, and it was gone.

BLOCK: Any idea where it ended up?

Mr. VON RINTELN: No, we haven't found it yet. There's a lot of debris from mainly vegetation, but there has been roof damages and damages to buildings, you know, not to where they're totally destroyed but, you know, repairs are going to be necessary. And there was surge flooding, so there were areas that were affected dramatically by that.

BLOCK: Was that in Naples itself?

Mr. VON RINTELN: Well, all of Collier County--the storm had a 62-mile eye, and when it made landfall, it pretty much covered the county top to bottom.

BLOCK: Where does the damage seem to have been the worst?

Mr. VON RINTELN: Well, it's pockets. I mean, I don't think any neighborhood went unscathed. I think probably the southern part of the county, from Marco Island south, which would include the city of Everglades, Chokoloskee, Goodland, those communities, because that was closer to the right quadrant of the hurricane as it came ashore.

BLOCK: And what have you heard about the damage down there?

Mr. VON RINTELN: Well, we're still, you know, out there assessing it, and in my experience you really don't get a good picture for about 12 hours, and it always seems to end up being worse than what you first thought. It's not catastrophic, but it's considerable and in some cases serious. It's not on the level of Katrina, but it's--as we get a better picture of it, it's going to be quite extensive because, as I mentioned, it's throughout the whole county.

BLOCK: Are there some places in the county that you just don't know about yet because no one's...

Mr. VON RINTELN: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...been able to get there or get contact with them?

Mr. VON RINTELN: We're a big county. We're 2,020 square miles, so, you know, it takes a little time to get into every neighborhood and check every condominium. And, you know, it's diverse. We have the beach condos, and then we have the little rural areas that are quite spread out.

BLOCK: Do you figure there will be a next time this year, or is hurricane season over?

Mr. VON RINTELN: Well, in my experience, you know, this is a very late-season hurricane and particularly a late-season major hurricane. So I think you can always get a tropical event, you know, up until the end of hurricane season, and, in fact, you can get them outside of hurricane season. But you don't typically get these strong ones this late in the season. More likely there'll be something like a tropical storm from here on out.

BLOCK: So you're banking on this being the last big one anyway.

Mr. VON RINTELN: Well, we never do that. I mean, you always have to kind of keep one eye over your shoulder when you live, you know, along the coast in Florida. So it's not unusual to get hit one right after another just because the atmospherics sometimes are the same. And, you know, the same reasons that this one hit us, you know, could bring another one. But I think because of the lateness in the season, it's low probability.

BLOCK: Mr. von Rinteln, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. VON RINTELN: Sure. Thank you.

BLOCK: Jim von Rinteln is emergency management coordinator for Collier County, Florida. He spoke with us from the emergency operations center just outside Naples, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.