Lauderdale show uses one of 9 lives

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With the city in ruins after Hurricane Wilma, the show site’s power was restored just a day before opening

Shredded to pieces in Hurricane Wilma, the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show rose phoenix-like from the rubble and opened Nov. 3, just a week late, defying all but the most optimistic expectations.

“It’s amazing that they pulled this off at all,” said Jesse Russell of Savannah, Ga., a salesman for Beard Marine, which manufactures watermakers, refrigeration units and air conditioners.

Many were amazed that both the show — one of the world’s largest — and the city recovered as quickly as they did, in time to welcome thousands of guests and exhibitors. Wilma whipped through Fort Lauderdale Oct. 24, three days before the scheduled opening.

Wilma’s 115-mph winds snapped utility poles and transmission lines, leaving more than 3 million without electricity. Trees toppled onto roads, and as cleanup began mounds of limbs, fences and other debris lined roads. With no power, service stations couldn’t pump fuel, and tempers flared as motorists waited hours in lines at the few stations that could open. Thousands were lining up at food, ice and water distribution points as show organizer Kaye Pearson and his boat-show crew worked feverishly to clean up the show site and set it up all over again.

Pearson, whose well-oiled machine sets up a half-dozen major shows a year, said he knew they could meet the deadline. “I’ve got a lot of confidence and faith in my crew,” he said. “They’re the best in the world at what they do.”

But he wasn’t sure the city would be ready for the influx of visitors. “Power, water, gas, hotels, traffic lights,” he said, naming the litany of problems facing hurricane-weary South Florida. “I had to roll the dice that they would recover enough that we could host the event. In fact, those [came] together very well.”

Wilma had shredded five of Pearson’s big tents, upended docks, and turned the main show site at Bahia Mar into a field of twisted metal and upended tractor trailers. Fortunately, none of the in-water boats had been allowed to move into their slips there. But at Pier 66 Marina, where some of the megayachts had sought refuge, fixed concrete finger piers gave way and boats were blown onto each other. A 72-foot Azimut broke loose from across the Intracoastal Waterway and was blown nearly a quarter-mile to the marina, and a into 98-foot Hargrave.

Chip Sayer was below in his 63-foot Tom Colvin-designed schooner, Wind Dancer, at Pier 66 when a small 65-pound refrigerator blew into his cockpit and lodged there in a 130-mph wind gust.

At the Convention Center, where smaller sport and fishing boats had moved in, Wilma damaged part of the roof, sending water cascading into one of the upper-floor exhibit rooms.

Meanwhile, boats that had been scheduled to move into their show slips the week the storm hit were forced to seek safe harbor elsewhere. Many suffered damage. “A gelcoat guy and rubrail guy could do pretty good here,” said Jeff McFarland of Destin, Fla., a Galanti Yacht Sales serviceman, as he repaired a boat’s rubrail at Bahia Mar.

Despite all that, Pearson and team pulled the show together. He rented new tents from a Chicago concessionaire, rearranged exhibits at the convention center to get them out of the damaged area, and pulled boats out of Pier 66, which needed its slips that week for its winter customers. He redeployed those boats to the Bahia Mar, Las Olas and Hall of Fame marinas, and set up landside again at the Bahia Mar.

A day before the show, a Canadian Hydro One power crew reset utility poles and restrung a feeder line, restoring electricity to the show site. Had that not happened, the show would still have opened, though with generators only and no air conditioning in the tents.

Despite exhibitor concerns that no buyers would attend a show that had just been whacked by a hurricane, all but 110 of the 1,000 in-water boats turned out, and only 61 of 1,400 exhibitors bailed. Though attendance was down significantly, as expected, show-goers who were there were happy with what they saw.

“I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Norman Beumel, who in the absence of electricity had been powering his Boca Raton, Fla., home with generators. “It looks like they have pretty much everything they had in previous years. … It beats mowing the lawn. That’s why I’m here. I’ve had enough chainsaws.”

Rick and Susie Lueders of Grosse Pointe, Mich., rearranged their travel plans after Wilma. Regular Lauderdale attendees, they had second thoughts about coming this time. But Northwest Airlines was accommodating, and as it turned out they enjoyed the light traffic at the show while looking at 50-foot powerboats.

“I think they’ve done a fantastic job of getting everything squared away,” said Rick Lueders, noting all the street lights, street signs and street cleanup that had to be taken care of to make the show possible. “It’s surprisingly well-organized given what it must have looked like last week.”

Exhibitor reaction to the show was mixed. “We’re down about 90 percent,” said Kim Riley, communications director for Carver Yachts. Late Sunday afternoon — the last day of the show — the Pulaski, Wis., builder had generated about 550 leads, down from 5,000 at a normal Lauderdale show.

Some did better. “We’re going to have as good a show as we ever had,” said Jan Boone, vice president of sales and service for Hatteras. “We’re going to make out as well as last year.” Others, too, reported making sales.

That was good news for Pearson, whose big concern as opening day approached was, “Will we do enough business to justify this?”

Staff Writer Michael Hauenstein contributed to this story.