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Fort Lauderdale boat show opens to big crowds

At 10 a.m. Thursday, the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show was ready to open, but as luck would have it the fire marshal hadn’t arrived yet to check the exit signs in the entrance tent.

A crowd of 500 or 600 show-goers massed around the gates, and a line snaked back around the Bahia Mar Hotel. They waited patiently on a warm, sunny Florida morning for the gates to open on a show that many thought would never happen.

At 10:45 those gates did open, and against all odds the show was on — just a week behind schedule and a mere 10 days after Hurricane Wilma ripped up the show site.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle paid show organizer Kaye Pearson the ultimate compliment, suggesting at a press breakfast that Pearson might make a good FEMA director.

“If the president of the United States ever needs to create a city in the middle of the desert for 50,000 people, he should call on Kaye Pearson,” Naugle said. “He’s been amazing.”

“There have been a lot of questions about this show,” Pearson said. The main question: To put it on or not to put it on.

“Irwin Jacobs called and said, ‘It looks like a war zone down there,’ ” Pearson said. “Clearly, it did look like a war zone. No question.”

Five of his exhibit tents had been shredded. Aluminum tent frames lay all over. Docks were flipped. Generators were in the water.

But by this morning, Pearson said, “If you got up in a helicopter and looked at the show, you wouldn’t know that anything had happened.”

All but 61 of 1,400 exhibitors showed up. Pearson lost just 110 of the 1,000 boats scheduled to go in the water. All 600 boats that had reserved space at the convention center are there.

Outside, things were just as busy.

“If you look out at the front row — the superyacht sector — it’s as full as it’s ever been,” Pearson said.

As they began filing into the entrance tent at 10:45, some of the show-goers seemed as impressed as the mayor with Pearson’s accomplishment.

“There was a helicopter shot of that tent on TV after the hurricane,” said show-goer Jerry Janaro of Fort Lauderdale, pointing to the entrance tent. “It was in pieces. It looked like a jigsaw puzzle. I’m astounded. We’re standing in line now, but I give them all the credit in the world.”

Janaro and his wife, Susan, said they are seriously looking for a new boat.

Friend Guy Numann of Vero Beach pulled a paper out his pocket with a list of 20 or 30 items he wanted to buy or talk with vendors about. “Serious people come to this show the first day,” he said.

Mayor Naugle said that, as the show opened, 70 percent of hotels in Broward County are open, and there are plenty of vacant rooms. Power crews had restored full power to the show site the day before, a godsend for exhibitors and guests alike. The show could have operated on generators only, but with full power the air conditioners are running and tents are cool.

Seventy-two booths originally scheduled for the Convention Center’s third-floor Florida ballroom have been relocated because of roof damage; otherwise the convention center is fully operating, Pearson said.

“Wilma is history,” said Pearson.

— Jim Flannery