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They made fun of him for building a fortress; then he survived Hurricane Irma

Kate Irby and Lesley Clark, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

EVERGLADES CITY, Fla. -- Joe West has spent a lifetime in the hospitality industry. So when Hurricane Irma began ramping up, he did what he does best: He opened his doors.

And oh, what doors they are.

West, who spent a decade as dean of Florida International University's hospitality and tourism school, and his wife, Liz, along with two other couples rode out the storm high above the mangroves in West's specially built hurricane-resistant stilt home in this tiny Everglades fishing village.

West, who now teaches hospitality part time at Miami Dade College, knew his neighbors had mocked his dream house.

"They all gave me (expletive) about building a fortress and now they're staying here," he said, laughing as he and his neighbors sat in his garage, whose floors showed only traces of 2 inches of muck that Irma had pushed in.

Indeed, they gratefully accepted his invite to stay at the "West Five Star Evacuation Center" -- so called by Liz, who awarded the two-bedroom home five stars for its cellphone charging station and "free wireless," among a host of other amenities -- including a reserve of alcohol and board games to wile away the hours.

While other homes were ripped apart by wind three times as fast as freight trains and flooded with water so fierce it toppled full propane tanks, the three couples, three dogs, three cats and six fish had a very different experience in the West Five Star Evacuation Center.

It looks like the average Florida stilt home, but its 21-foot-tall stilts are steel-reinforced and sit on top of pilings driven 50 feet into sandy ground. Its windows were built to sustain winds of up to 200 mph miles per hour. It's equipped with a backup generator capable of supporting satellite TV. The walls, floors and ceilings are solid concrete, and the outlets in the limited space on the ground floor are at eye level rather than close to the ground, so they don't as not to short out at high tide.

"A decently sized sinkhole could open up underneath this house -- it would still stand," Joe West said.

Its inspiration was Hurricane Donna, a Category 4 storm that wreaked havoc on South Florida on Sept. 10, 1960, 57 years before Irma did the same. Joe West lived through so-called "Deadly Donna," which killed 50 people in the United States when he was a teenager, and he wasn't going to let a hurricane catch him off guard. He told the builder he wanted "a house that can withstand Donna."


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