Waiting for Floyd

New Times reporters hit the road to bring you all the prehurricane weirdness fit to print

Even before Tuesday afternoon, when boyish Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas lifted the evacuation order, it was clear the City of Miami had again avoided a major hurricane. Last year we had Georges, then Mitch. Dennis passed by this past August. And finally there was Floyd. As soon as the storms churn away, usually toward the cursed Carolinas coast, it's easy to forget the stomach-rumbling anxiety spawned by their approach. The sun shines, supermarket aisles no longer host rugby scrums, and Roland Steadham grabs some Z's. The storm's effect on our lives drifts from memory like a warm breeze. So this time New Times's crack hurricane team fanned out across the county to record the panic, political caterwauling, public whining, and inebriated extemporizing that make the hours before a storm doesn't hit uniquely South Floridian.

On Monday morning, as Floyd flattened the Bahamas, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen P. Mickle flew to Miami from Gainesville to preside over a minor assault case. As Mickle took the bench in the federal courthouse, weather projections pointed the hurricane pretty much straight at his house. Jury selection was expected to take three days. Mickle assembled the full complement in about a half an hour.

Tom Carlson

"This trial should take only one day," Mickle instructed the jurors. "One day."

The defendant was Jimmy Sabatino, the subject of a recent New Times cover story ("Con Kid," September 9). Sabatino is a 22-year-old high school dropout credited with conning millions of dollars' worth of goods and services from some of the biggest companies in the world. In August he pleaded guilty to charges that included threatening to blow up the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. On this day he was to be tried for assaulting a prison guard, a relatively minor offense that carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison.

As the trial proceeded from opening statements to witnesses' testimony, nearly everyone present was distracted by the storm. Jimmy's father, Peter, tried to book a hotel room in Coral Springs. A federal prosecutor sat in the back row of the gallery, checking off items on a photocopied Publix hurricane-supply list. "I live in a high-rise on South Beach," he said. "I don't have a clue what I'm supposed to do, or even where I'm supposed to go." At every recess attorneys, marshals, and other courtroom functionaries scurried like cockroaches to all corners of the lobby, dialing their cell phones for storm updates. Every new piece of information was relayed to the group.

"They still say it will stay off the coast until it gets up to Georgia," called out defense attorney Allen S. Kaufman.

"They're saying it's a category 5 now," added prosecutor Ryan McCabe. "But they keep saying they expect it to turn."

"It has to do with this thing they call the Bermuda warm front or something," added an elderly U.S. marshal, diagramming the projected movement of the hurricane with his hands. "It will make it turn up north, because of the high pressure, see? It makes it turn to the right, see?" He glided his palms as if practicing tai chi.

Except for the Sabatino trial, courthouse activity ceased at 3:00 p.m. By 4:00 p.m. Judge Mickle had joined the evacuation. Immediately after he sent the jury into deliberations he stripped off his robe, grabbed his briefcase, and disappeared into a descending elevator. Before the door closed he could be heard saying to his companion, a U.S. marshal, "I hope you have your traveling shoes on." Senior Judge Edward B. Davis stepped in to hear the verdict. "How long do you think [deliberations] will take?" the court reporter asked the bailiff. "A half an hour?"

"I can never tell," the bailiff responded. "I have no ability to predict a jury."

"Yeah, but have you ever tried to predict a jury when a hurricane is about to strike?" Peter Sabatino asked.

The deliberations lasted longer than expected. No verdict had been reached when Judge Davis called the jurors back into the courtroom at a few minutes past 5:00 p.m. He didn't even bother sitting down. "There has been a change in our advisory," he said in the slow, measured cadence of a statesman. "Now a hurricane warning is in effect rather than a watch."

"A hurricane is coming?" shrieked an older woman. "My God," gasped another juror. "I told you all! I told you!" chanted a third, a younger woman with a heavy Spanish accent.

"Now it is still very far away," Davis continued, "on the other side of San Salvador. But it appears to be moving in a westerly direction instead of a northerly one. So I have to recess the trial unless you have reached a verdict that you could tell me about right now."

Then Davis sent everyone home. "I told you guys!" cried one juror as she sprinted toward the elevator, where eleven of the twelve crammed into one car. The door opened in the lobby and the group scattered like extras in the Beatles movie, Help!

Upstairs, Jimmy Sabatino's fate hung in legal limbo, at least until Thursday (when the jury found him guilty). Before leaving the courtroom, the defendant said goodbye to his father. "I'm going to be at your aunt's," Peter Sabatino replied.

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