Do You See a Squall in your Crystal Ball?

Six weeks into hurricane season, and barely a sprinkle. Forget the so-called weather experts, it's time for some real forecasting.

Professional psychic Patricia Marks and I are sitting in the spotless living room of her house on Bird Road in West Dade. Clad in a colorful print housedress, her brown hair pulled back, she's telling me I'm intuitive (which I think is good) but that I'm too softhearted (which I think is bad).

A deck of Tarot cards rests on the coffee table, pastel fish figurines decorate the shelves of a room divider. Against one wall, a jukebox stands idle. -- Ms. Pacman machine awaits a player. From a framed black-and-white print, Marilyn Monroe is smiling quixotically, looking outward for dragons or maybe just taking it all in. It's as if she's contemplating the future, or perhaps the reality of that camera-caught moment. Hard to tell. I wish I could read her mind.

Mrs. Marks probably could, although that's not her specialty. Her mother was a psychic, she's a psychic, and, Mrs. Marks says, as a child she naturally assumed that everyone was psychic. "Like if you're born blind," she explains. "You think everyone is blind."

These days Mrs. Marks specializes in personal problems. "Psychics are like doctors -- they specialize. I'm not good with world things. I keep hearing about Bosnia. What is it?" Nonetheless, she once had a strong negative feeling about something going on in Virginia. Found out there was a terrible fire. Another time she had a feeling about a terrible storm.

It was called Andrew.
Which is why I'm visiting Mrs. Marks today. I want to know: What does hurricane season have in store for South Florida this time around?

William Gray, the noted hurricane forecaster (also known as the noted hurricane forecaster William Gray), has warned darkly that 1993 will bring more, bigger, and badder hurricanes than last year.

And Andrew was a mere Category 4. What if something even worse.... The trauma! The Miami Herald has already used "The Big One" headline. The Even Bigger One? The Big Big One? The Really Superlarge Gigantic Massive Huge Big One? Add that to the list of crises South Florida will have to weather should Gray's prediction of seven hurricanes send the worst winds our way before November 30. No electricity. No refrigeration. No plumbing. No showers. No traffic signals. No street signs. No garbage collection. Beanee-Weenees for breakfast.

This year, though, we are prepared.
One aspect of the absurdity of human existence is the fact that we always seem to display our best getting-ready-for-disaster abilities after the terrible event we're girding for has already occurred.

Thus, a year after Andrew, we are so damn prepared that there'd better be a big storm this season. Otherwise we will resent having made the preparedness effort, lose the respect for nature's power we gained from the Andrew Experience, and, much worse, look like a bunch of yellow-bellied fools blown pell-mell by the slightest breeze.

Far easier to predict than a storm has been the media's response to this first storm season post-Andrew. Two weeks into the official May-through-November hurricane derby, the Miami Herald published its fourth special "how-to" section, which, along with that paper's ongoing, Pulitzer-friendly daily coverage, reiterates the basic theme of run for your freakin' lives! The special section includes a note: "[This] continues our efforts to provide needed help and sell full-page ads to Wrol-Up brand shades and shutters."

Local television, too, is sounding the alarm. WSVN-TV (Channel 7) has aired a special to go along with its daily reports on its local-news show, plus a hotline (759-7777) that provides daily updates on the weather in the Caribbean. WLTV-Channel 23's Juan Fernandez cheerfully explains that his station provides tips ("freeze jugs of water and leave them in the refrigerator to keep it cool when the power goes out") on a daily basis and in specials. WSCV-Channel 51 ran a five-part series and also produced its own special. WPLG-Channel 10 has offered multiple airings of its Hurricane Survival Kit. WCIX-Channel 6 has been chiming in with broadcasts of Hurricanes: What Every Kid Should Know. This accompanies Channel 6's Your Hurricane Survival Guide. The station also proudly features closed-captioning on storm-related programming.

All eyes, of course, are on WTVJ-Channel 4, which covered Andrew so well that NBC made a movie about it. (NBC owns Channel 4, but surely that's a coincidence.) Bryan Norcross and crew have published a 26-page booklet to go with a series of Ready, Set, Hurricane specials; the Ready, Set video is being sold in local stores. And Channel 4 also proudly features open-captioning (through WLRN-Channel 17) on all storm-related programming. "If, God forbid, another hurricane comes," says a spokesman, "a lot of people don't have the closed-captioning boxes." Appropriately, the station now leads each nightly newscast with Norcross screaming, "Run for your freakin' lives!"

Getting a little wet around the armpits yet? Relax, neighbors. Noted hurricane forecaster William Gray is only noted because the media keep noting him. Meanwhile, we're nearly two months into the season and there hasn't been the merest whimper of a blow, which should provide a large measure of reassurance to the most diehard of typhoon poltroon. What's more, Gray lives in Colorado. As for all those Chicken Littles on TV, they're just trying to scare us so we'll do something foolish and they can report that. And those public-service awards aside, the Herald is still in the business of selling newspapers (and selling ads: Home Depot will end up paying Carl Hiaasen's salary this year). Ignore them all. Now that all of us are prepared, sunny days lie ahead. There will be no hurricanes hitting South Florida this year. Except the University of Miami's football team.

I know this because I sought information from sources more reliable than the media. I consulted the people who know about these things, whose business it is to describe the future before it happens.

One thing I found out through my pursuit of predictions was that we all should have known Andrew was coming -- Norcross's eleventh-hour red-flag-waving was helpful and entertaining, but we had weeks, months even, to prepare for a major 'cane making landfall in our stuck-out neck of the woods. The Old Farmer's Almanac publishes complete weather forecasts for sixteen regions. The man who writes these, Dr. Richard Head, predicted last year that a hurricane would hit South Florida at the end of August. This fact was bandied about, and noted in the pages of New Times, just after Andrew. Dr. Head was a week off, but that's trifling. Nobody paid any attention to him, and that's changed. (In vague terms not pinpointing the tip of the peninsula but addressing Florida in general, this year's almanac predicts a tropical storm in late August, a possible "onshore" hurricane in the second week of September, and a hurricane in mid-October. Run for your freakin' lives!)

All copies of the 1993 Old Farmer's Almanac have been snapped up by anxious South Floridians -- there are block-long lines of people outside every Waldenbooks and B. Dalton waiting to reserve a copy should one become available before we're all either washed into the sea or dead from a heart attack because we were fretting about whether we could afford a new set of Wrol-Up brand shutters.

The almanac route was obvious. Another must was the writings of sixteenth-century prognosticator, poet, philosopher, and Beanee-Weenee-eater M. Michel de Nostradamus. "The great city full of people will be shattered," Nostradamus foresaw. "Darkness and trouble in the air on sky and land." Unfortunately, it turns out he was talking about an earthquake.

In any case, such an olden-days gazer is of only passing interest. I'd rather wager my insurance-settlement money on the visions of current seers such as Alex. "I am not a 'fortune teller'," the professional psychic implores. "There's a big difference. I get revelations." (Astute readers will no doubt note the preponderance of single names. Far from being a journalistic device, this is life in the realm of the psychically blessed. Like certain pop stars, they tend to not go by their full names.) Alex, of Greek heritage and reared in New York City, knows that South Florida will face some "strong winds" in the coming months, but assures there will be "no hurricane."

"It's going to be scary because of last year," he predicts. "People will fear, but that's only common sense. We will have winds and storms, but not nearly half of what we had last year. Strange things have happened since I was ten," he adds, affirming his status as a real expert. "Then at eleven I started knowing what was going to become. Ever since I was twelve, I've been doing this. If clients want to know something, they have to bring an object, like a comb or pencil. That triggers it. Natural causes is how I got the hurricane idea." With his warm intonation and clear articulations, Alex has definitely made me feel better. But now I've got him going. "What really bothers me is that there are fake psychics," he says earnestly. "They're charging people $2.95 on these 1-900 lines. They're messing with people's minds and I don't think that's fair."

Not all seers were as helpful and friendly as Alex. Take Mrs. Green, for instance, whose name I found in the "Classified" pages of a local news-and-arts weekly. "I'm very busy," Mrs. Green says breathlessly. "I don't have time to give you anything on this, I'm just too busy. I would have to concentrate."

Sorry, Mrs. Green, but didn't you know I'd be calling?
And who knows what fate befell Faya? After finding her ad in the Yellow Pages, I drove to South Dade in search of this "world reknown [sic] psychic reader and advisor." (In fact I visited the area several times to remind myself to not make fun of the victims of the Big One.) Faya's spiritual spread at 21301 S. Dixie Highway, deep in Andrew territory, is for sale. What's left of it, anyway. Faya herself could not be located. My guess is she got a "revelation" and moved to Montana in early August of '92.

I did talk with Mrs. Grace, a palmist/reader/advisor. "I don't feel we'll get anything anywhere near as big as Andrew," she promises. "If we do get one, it won't come near to Andrew. I do see something forthcoming, but nothing big like Andrew. I don't feel anything major. We will have hurricanes. We will get some eventually. It doesn't take a reader to tell you that." I realize Mrs. Grace is a bit jaded, put off by years of hearing naysayers and pooh-poohers who, in their own stupidity, have failed to consult useful sources as to the possibilities of serious storm damage. "Even if you warn people," she offers, "they think it's a hoax, that it can't happen to them. So they would rather wait and take their chances than listen to us. People don't listen."

A psychic named Elizabeth foretells the future from her home in Broward County, so her metaphysical abilities are not tainted by the trauma experienced by anyone who lives/lived south of Miller Drive. In fact, Elizabeth is infallible. Her preliminary prediction is a lock, as guaranteed as sunrise: "It's going to be hot and humid," she says, deadpan. A South Florida resident for the past seventeen years, Elizabeth is a voracious reader. She reads cards and auras and crystals and palms. She deals with the past, present, and future. She answers questions. She calls out names and numbers. She has been gifted since she was eight years old. "At times we will have heavy winds this year. But no hurricane. You know those heavy winds we had last week?" she says ominously. "I had wind of something coming in from the Bahamas. This year people will think a hurricane is coming, but it won't. Not like Andrew."

Which brings me to Mrs. Marks. "You should've come to see me last year," the Dania-born, self-confessed "true Floridian" asserts. In early 1992 one of her clients asked specifically about storms. She told him a hurricane was coming. Then she spread out a map and pointed to a section of Florida near the Everglades: southern Dade County. "And it's going to be a big one."

A day before the hurricane another client called. "I'm in Homestead," the customer explained, "and I'm wondering whether I should evacuate." Mrs. Marks gave a two-word answer: get out!

Like most of my sources, Mrs. Marks has been licensed by the county as a psychic, working from her early-Seventies concrete-block house (it suffered minor Andrew damage) since 1976. She lights up a Salem and looks me in the eye. "I definitely feel another hurricane this year." She says it will hit farther north and that it won't be quite as big as Andrew. "As far as density, it won't be as strong," she adds. "But the panic will be. Like the TV says, prepare now. You don't have to be psychic to know to prepare."

Besides what the seers saw for me, I did pick up a tip or two -- try calling the obstetrics ward at your favorite hospital. The number of births will indicate changes in barometric pressure that could foretell a 'cane, although it might be too late by then. I also discovered some real statistics, always helpful in determining probabilities. A study covering 1886 to 1987 and concentrating on a 75-mile radius of Miami indicates that we should expect a Category 1 storm once every 3.5 years. A Category 2 should come around once every six years. Category 3s are due every eight years. Andrew-size blowers come in once every fourteen years. And the really superlarge huge ones can be counted on once every 30 years.

That info came from a source at the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables. The phone number there begins with the digits 666.

Bob Gregorka is the oddsmaker at the Sands Casino in Las Vegas, and he's well-known for posting lines on unusual wagers. The odds on a repeat of Andrew are seven to one, meaning that if you bet $100 that a Category 4 will tear through here and one does, you get back $700 (plus insurance settlements). But Vegas casinos aren't posting such lines. "No," Gregorka says, "most of us frown on putting odds on negative things where people get hurt." (For this article, he deduced the odds based on hurricane statistics.)

Some prognosticators refused to prognosticate for me at all. Bob Sheets, noted Andrew hero and director of the hurricane center, says he doesn't have a hunch. "We don't do that." He also has no scientific reasons to guess one way or the other. "We make no such predictions. No one is skilled in making such predictions."

Try telling that to Mrs. Marks.
Another nonparticipant is a man who makes his living handicapping pari-mutuels. He asked not to be identified, to not be associated with this report in any way. "I'll read your story when it comes out, and I'm sure it will be funny," he says. "But it's not something I can joke with you about -- the odds? No, it's not funny. Several of my family members lost their homes in Andrew. We're still recovering. It's not something I can talk about.

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