Waiting for Floyd

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

"Be safe, go to Vegas," Jimmy cracked with a smile. "Or don't be safe. Either way, go to Vegas."

"I'll be at your aunt's," Peter repeated solemnly as the marshals escorted Jimmy back to his cell at the federal detention center, the safest place in town. -- Robert Andrew Powell

Tom Carlson

Shortly after 5:00 p.m. Monday, as Sabatino headed to the slammer and Mayor Penelas announced the evacuation of coastal areas, Marie Schmidt, clerk of the City of Sweetwater, sent out a notice announcing a public gathering: "There will be an Emergency Commission Meeting ... to discuss emergency preparations due to the imminent threat of Hurricane Floyd," the notice read.

Despite its diminutive size of just eight-tenths of a square mile, Sweetwater is a good candidate for natural disaster. Even the smallest rainstorm causes flooding. The city also boasts one manmade magnet for hurricanes and tornadoes, the Lil' Abner Mobile Home Park on NW Fourth Street. Although Floyd threatened Sweetwater's citizens, they rested easy knowing their city government had sprung into action. Or at least the commission had; the mayor learned of the meeting at the last minute.

"I'm curious to see what this is all about," Mayor José "Pepe" Diaz said before the call to order.

At 8:07 p.m., after the Pledge of Allegiance and an invocation requesting that God safeguard the city, Commissioner Manolo Fernandez answered Diaz's query.

"You are governing this city without the commissioners!" Fernandez complained to the mayor. "You travel with bodyguards and important people. We have more experience than you do, but you have ignored us completely."

"This is not happy!" declared Commissioner Manuel Duasso. "This is the end of your honeymoon!"

Ah, Sweetwater. Even the threat of an epic windstorm can't quell the tempest of political infighting that is the city's trademark. In broken English the commissioners demanded to know why the mayor hadn't given the order for people to distribute sandbags until 5:00 p.m. Diaz protested that the commissioners could have called and requested the bags at any time.

"I'm kind of pissed off here," Diaz said, sucking in his breath. "I have been trying to do as much as possible."

The mayor then listed his actions: He and the city engineer had convinced the South Florida Water Management District to lower the water level of a nearby canal, he had evacuated the Lil' Abner trailer park, and he had marshaled crews to pick up debris. None of this had been easy. Some city employees had abandoned their posts and the citizenry was less than cooperative.

Yet commissioners complained that Diaz had bruised their tender egos.

"You yelled at me!" complained Fernandez.

"We expect respect!" griped Commissioner Jesus Mesa.

"Sometimes I call you and you are pissed off and you don't want to talk," Diaz angrily responded to commissioners. "This isn't a game; this is a serious hurricane."

An argument ensued over who did the most work after Hurricane Andrew.

Commissioner Mesa stormed out muttering obscenities.

"Look at what you are doing," Diaz declared to the commission. "You want me to put you in charge and to let you do everything. It is my job to run the city."

Commissioner Luis Rodriguez pleaded for more communication. "These are your friends. Work with them," he begged the mayor. "They helped you get elected."

"We have done everything that we possibly could to prepare for this hurricane," Diaz said, visibly struggling to stay calm. "What I couldn't prepare for was this."

After an hour of bickering, the meeting adjourned. Diaz went home to put up his hurricane shutters. -- Jacob Bernstein

In the nerve center of the Channel 10 (WPLG-TV) Hurricane Help Line, David Naranjo leaned back in his swivel chair, a beige telephone receiver pressed to his ear. His countenance was intense, with a look of near-shock. It was about 8:30 p.m. Naranjo, three of his fellow WPLG-TV employees, and one volunteer were manning a bank of six phones in the second-floor conference room of the station's 3900 Biscayne Blvd. headquarters. At this point Hurricane Floyd was tracking west-northwest. It seemed likely that South Florida would suffer, if not the brunt of the massive storm, then at least some of its hurricane-force winds.

Frenzied callers bombarded the station with nervous inquiries: Where is the nearest hurricane shelter? Do I need to evacuate? What about my dogs? The volunteers, hunched over their phones, all cast looks toward Naranjo as his squeaky chair reclined and he listened to the plaintive plea of the desperate, hurricane-crazed soul on the other end of the line. What could elicit such a stunned reaction from the producer?

"The Backstreet Boys concert is canceled," Naranjo declared, shaking his head and rolling his eyes toward the ceiling.

In the early going of the 8:00 p.m.-to-midnight shift, questions about Orlando's favorite sons of song and dance came in a close second to some variant of, "To hell with the hurricane, are you guys still showing Monday Night Football or what?" Indeed, South Florida's ABC affiliate decided to go with Al Michaels describing "second-and-ten" in favor of weatherman Don Noe describing barometric pressure. And because of that, at least until halftime, the TV monitor in Channel 10's conference room was tuned to Channel --

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