The day after Hurricane Georges bodyslams the Keys, September 25th, Miami is a ghost town. Though the winds barely reach gale force, businesses close and workers shutter storefronts in a post-traumatic-stress flashback to Hurricane Andrew. Windblown detritus clogs empty roads: palm leaves, newspapers, scraps of wood. By late afternoon a sky the color of curdled milk begins to break apart and reveal the orange beyond.
On NE 121st Street, a tree-shaded road in North Miami, people begin to emerge from modest one-story homes. Litter is strewn about the road in front of number 739, a squat structure where Christopher Cole lives.
"Hello." Cole's British accent rounds out the O so the word sounds like Hey-low. He's standing in his doorway wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt. "Excuse us, we're trying to dig out," he says. Then he beckons a visitor to enter a house crammed with cardboard boxes, water jugs, tools, and other items.
Cole, a 40-year-old photographer, sits on a couch. A Trinidadian woman whom he introduces as Eleanor places a sheaf of papers before him on a coffee table. The manuscript outlines Cole's consuming passion: a hurricane readiness plan that he calls "Operation Nineveh." Eleanor serves cookies and Coca-Cola.
"Basically, this is a three-county network, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach," he says, sitting on the couch's edge. "The idea of having three counties is that in a worst-case scenario, two counties would be devastated and the third would be able to assist."
He explains rat-a-tat that he and a small cadre of volunteers visit businesses and churches, asking them to join his network. "We have roughly about 200 people. In the event that something happens, those 200 would gather other people." Then he describes supply routes, evacuation areas, and the logistics of setting up medical tents.
After talking nonstop for several minutes, Cole leans forward: "I'm going to share something with you now, I hope it doesn't scare you. But I trust you."
"On April 8 of last year I had very strong, vivid dreams. I had a vision." While meditating Cole says he saw a hurricane sent by God to destroy Miami. Images of winds ravaging Miami-Dade County flashed through his mind. Soon details began to emerge: The winds reached 185 miles per hour with gusts up to 220. The eye passed over South Beach, snapping the towering condos like twigs, and continued northwest into Pembroke Pines. It lasted twelve hours. Thousands died. This was only the beginning. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and tidal waves convulsed this country from coast to coast. All the major cities crumbled. And in the aftermath, a Christian Kingdom was born.
Cole knows one other thing: He is God's point man in Miami.
"I believe God has given us clear signs that this nation has entered into Judgment. I know that Miami will be the first major city to come under that Judgment." Moreover, his group's name, Nineveh, refers to an ancient Assyrian city that the prophet Jonah tried to warn about the Lord's vengeance.
Cole's parapet-roofed house exhibits his commitment. Outside the rear door are half a dozen blue, plastic, 50-gallon drums for water. A few feet away is a pump to access a reserve water supply. A line of searchlights rest on a wooden rack. Inside the house a bank of car batteries are mounted on a wall. They power a generator that can produce enough electricity to run the house for twelve hours. All conceivable surfaces in the kitchen and back rooms are crammed with supplies: economy-sized cereal boxes, jumbo cans of tuna fish and beans, rubber surgical gloves, bandages, and disinfectants. There are even helium tanks and boxes of balloons, which Cole plans to attach to the dead and wounded so rescue vehicles can spot them.
Cole may be obsessive, even fanatical, but he is not alone.
On the cusp of the year 2000, Christians the world over are preparing for the Millennium, the thousand year period, mentioned in the biblical book of Revelations, in which Jesus rules the world. The date is less meaningful to the non-Christian majority. Nonetheless, militia groups are stocking up on canned food and munitions, while religious cult members are selling their belongings and moving to sites they believe are way stations on the road to heaven.
Miami is no different. And Cole, with his uniquely subtropical spin on the apocalypse, has tapped into a local network preparing for the worst.
In the year and a half since his vision, Cole has spent hours preaching in one-room churches, faxing and phoning people in cities around the world, and meeting with county emergency coordinators. He estimates he's spent $15,000 in the last year preparing his house, buying supplies, and printing flyers that bear his message. "I've contacted over 400 people about this."
He has not exactly attracted the masses. The most recent hurricane season ended November 30 and no monster storm materialized. Some criticized Cole for crying wolf. "It has been very isolating," he says. "But in that isolation I've gotten closer to God."
Cole asserts he's become a pariah, repeatedly threatened for his proselytizing. "I've been called a false prophet, a cult leader, a Nazi trying to scare people. And this is from people in the churches!" he exclaims. He recently had to change his phone number, he says, because of the threats.
Pastors who once invited Cole to address their congregations are distancing themselves. "Last year he prophesied something that was coming, and it didn't," says one Little Haiti minister who asked not to be identified. "I no longer allow him to talk to my parishioners."
Chris Cole wasn't religious as a child growing up in St. Albans, England, just north of London. In fact, he soured on the church soon after attending a Roman Catholic boarding school starting at age seven.
But he always had his own perspective. In 1980, after studying photography and graphic design at Southend College of Art, he began work shooting pictures with Norwegian Caribbean Cruise Line, which docks in Miami.
"Chris was always a deep thinker," says David Jones, who worked with Cole for about two years on the Southward. Jones was the ship's chief photographer and Cole was his first assistant. The pair shot pictures of cocktail parties, special events, and sometimes did passenger portraits. Crew members, cramped on a boat for weeks at a time, often killed their boredom drinking and partying during off-hours. But Jones sometimes noticed Cole sitting alone and contemplating the sea. "He was always a little introverted, a loner who wanted something more."
At that point religion was irrelevant to Cole's life. Photography was his passion. In the late Eighties, a show of his work was held at Bacardi headquarters on Biscayne Boulevard. The liquor company even provided a grant to help Cole continue his work.
In 1987 Cole left the cruise ship business. He settled in South Beach when it was a nursing home masquerading as a city and started a photography company called "Living Dreams." His photographs of Art Deco architecture were one of the early attempts to cash in on the South Beach renaissance. Then in 1990 he opened a store on Washington Avenue, the Deco Collection, selling photographs and postcards. "He's definitely got talent," Jones says.
Cole found religion after starting the shop. He's vague about the origin of this change, saying only: "It's because I had made some bad judgments and had some negative relationships." Jones recalls bumping into him at the Art Deco festival and getting a sermon. "It made me feel uncomfortable," Jones recounts.
One experience that likely altered Cole: his 1990 marriage to Connie Escobar. The union ended bitterly for both. They divorced in 1995, but not before she charged Cole struck hit her in June of 1993. Cole denies it. The charges were dropped six months later for lack of proof. Cole declines to elaborate, and Escobar couldn't be reached for comment.
Then, at 8 a.m. on April 8, 1997, Cole's life changed. He was meditating with a group of pastors in a Miami church, which he declines to name. "As I was praying I saw flashes going through my mind. I saw it, crystal clear, the eye of a hurricane." He saw people inside their Miami Beach condos before the towers crumbled saying, "Oh, we got through Andrew, we'll get through this." Hialeah was leveled as if by a nuclear blast. Pembroke Pines was in ruins. There were tidal waves and tornados.
The churning in his head lasted about three minutes. When it was over, he turned to his fellow meditators, explained what he had just seen, and exhorted them to pray with him.
A few days later Cole met David Turner, a heavy-set certified public accountant who harbored a childhood dream of becoming a meteorologist. Turner monitored weather patterns as painstakingly as a pro. While watching the Weather Channel in Atlanta in August 1992, Turner saw a map with a clump of clouds in the Atlantic. He predicted the storm would cut through South Dade with wind speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. "I knew that was going to be a hurricane," he states. When Andrew hit, Turner claims he was "freaked out" by his prediction.
A short time later Turner, a devout Christian, moved to Kendall. In April 1997 he attended a conference on spirituality at New Way Fellowship Church on NW 22nd Avenue. "They were plotting spiritual centers in Miami-Dade; it was heavy stuff," he explains. During a break someone told him a guy named Chris was warning of a cataclysmic hurricane in Miami-Dade. Turner had dreamed about such a storm. He grabbed a pen and sketched a map of the storm's predicted path and wind speeds. Then he introduced himself to Cole.
Cole still has the map. He wrote a note on it -- "Drawing of prophetic map given to me by David Turner at the Cindy Jacobs conference on 4/12/97 at New Way Fellowship." Cole took it as a sign affirming his vision.
Soon Turner and Cole teamed up to spread the message: A hurricane is heading this way, so turn to God. They visited churches in both Miami-Dade and Broward. Cole started a list of people and places that would help out after a disastrous storm.
Cole said it would hit that season.
There were plenty of receptive listeners. Ron Miller, who owns a car wash in Dania, heard Cole's prophecy. "I believe in the principle that the children of God should be prepared," Miller says. "We're going the wrong way, no doubt about it. The country that takes prayer out of the schools, the country that aborts 400,000 babies a year. The Scripture is very clear that nation will perish.
"I listened to his story," Miller adds, "and I said to Chris, 'The best I'll do for you is prepare.'" Cole put Miller and his car wash company on the list of Operation Nineveh rescue stations.
Samuel Austin, a devout Christian from Jamaica, heard Cole at a coffee shop. "The Bible says you should be obedient to the prophet. It is not for me to deny the message." So Austin listened, offered help, and waited. That first year, Cole put eleven churches, nine homes, and two businesses on Operation Nineveh's network of emergency medical and food distribution centers.
But Cole's confident prediction of the storm's date made Turner uneasy. "Even though I was with Chris, I made it clear I had no idea when this was going to happen. Personally, I think he stepped out too far on that one."
When the 1997 hurricane season ended without a storm, skepticism mounted. "Myself and the other pastors talked to him about the prophecy not coming about; we even said we felt he owed us an apology," says Pastor Richard Sejour of the Gateway Foursquare Gospel Church in North Dade. Sejour is Haitian and of his roughly 80 parishioners most are Caribbean islanders. "Anything that is established to help people is to be commended. At the same time, you don't want to use the word of God to pronounce prophecies that don't come true."
Cole was undeterred: "I know for a fact the hurricane was to come last year." The reason it didn't happen, he contends, is because his warnings were so successful. Thousands of people prayed and God intervened.
As supporters fell away, Cole set about finding new ones.
When Daphne Brown met Cole this past summer, she had never experienced a hurricane. The daughter of a Baptist minister, she grew up in the flat pasture land of northeast Texas, where strong tropical winds never blow. Brown, who has a master's degree in clinical exercise physiology, was a fitness director on cruise ships. Last year she was on a vessel that sailed into a tropical storm and bobbed like a rubber raft. "I was kind of scared," Brown says, her smooth forehead creasing at the memory. "The crew members were telling us horror stories about ships flipping over in hurricanes."
After about eight months, Brown tired of the cramped life aboard a ship. She quit to work as a trainer in a North Miami Beach gym. That's where she met Cole, who worked out there regularly. She describes him as an odd fellow eager to talk.
"I was walking the floor, meeting people, and just being friendly. This guy came up and said 'Hi.' He seemed very talkative. He was one of those people who seemed like a nuisance but you're still nice to him. A friendly nuisance."
Cole mentioned he worked on cruise ships. "That was something we had in common, and I was interested to talk to him then. He never mentioned religion. He never mentioned anything about a prophecy."
In late August Hurricane Bonnie was threatening Florida's southeast coast. Its path matched Cole's predicted hurricane.
"One day [Cole] came up to me and said 'You're in grave danger, but God has a plan for you. You need to come to a meeting and find out what God needs you to do. Miami's going to perish, and God has chosen you to help do his work,'" Brown recounts. "It was ironic that he came up to me and said that because at the time, I was really trying to get back into my Christianity, back to church and things like that."
Cole gave Brown the address of a Carol City church on NW 37th Avenue where he was scheduled to speak. When she arrived at 7 p.m., about 30 people, mostly Caribbean islanders, sat in folding chairs. According to Brown, a female pastor read from the Bible for a bit. Then she introduced Cole, who was dressed in an Operation Nineveh T-shirt, as a prophet. Brown was startled: "I never heard him referred to as a prophet before."
Brown gave the following version of the sermon, which Cole confirmed: First he predicted the hurricane, quoting Scripture to assure the audience of his veracity. Then he explained the community's prayers had delayed the 1997 storm. Cole held up a poster of Miami. "He said 'See this? This won't be here anymore. God's going to turn this into a totally Christian city. We're not going to have the immorality.'" Next he explained the storm would devastate America, the dollar's value would drop, and an enemy nation would conquer the United States. Jamaica would then rise up as a wealthy, Christian nation. "Then he talked about how black women are going to be with white men. It's totally weird," says Brown, who is black. "I didn't pay attention. I blew it off, because the other part, the Christian part, seemed very straight from the Bible." (Adds Cole: "There's going to be an integration explosion.")
Three and a half hours later, Cole was still speaking but Brown left, exhausted. "There were still people there saying 'Amen' and stuff," she says incredulously.
Brown laughs about it now and rolls her eyes, but she acknowledges volunteering to work with Cole.
Brown offered to do Internet research and compile information for volunteers. Within days Cole had convinced Brown to move in with him and his "team" when the hurricane approached. She attended a meeting at his house with six other women. "I felt a little funny, like, aren't there supposed to be men here too?" Brown says. "He said we were going to be in the house for three months because the devastation would be that bad. Little things like that should have clicked with me." Brown lets out an embarrassed groan. "He made it sound like it was going to be a war zone: We weren't going to be able to get out, people weren't going to be able to get back in, and dead bodies would be lying around."
Cole confirms that he fears post-hurricane violence. "We advise every rescue station to have self-defense," he says. "The criminal element will not hesitate to shoot someone for their food."
To that end, Cole told Brown and the others to learn to use a gun. They made plans to go to a firing range. Cole bought a Mossberg pump shotgun and asked Brown to assemble it. "I called my father in Texas, and he told me how to do it," she says.
Brown returned several times during the next two weeks. Cole requested a donation, and she gave $100. Then he exhorted her to buy Jamaican currency. She changed a few dollars.
The end came one night as Brown and Cole worked on some flyers in her apartment. They had worked late for several days, and Cole had slept on the couch. He confessed he was strongly attracted to her and tried to kiss her, Brown says. She was not attracted to him. Cole counters that "there was something from both sides," but declines to give details. The next day Cole announced God had spoken: Brown was no longer needed at his house. Oddly, Brown still wanted to participate.
"It's so strange looking back on that now. It's like looking at a different person. I mean, you know how you hear about a cult and wonder how someone could get involved in that? Well, now I know," Brown says.
By late November Cole has disappeared. His telephone is disconnected and no one is home. A sign hangs on the wooden fence: "Home for Sale by Owner: Unique and Hurricane Ready." Even Operation Nineveh volunteers don't know where to find him.
"I haven't seen him in quite some time," says Miller, the car wash owner. "I told him several months ago not to call me about hurricanes because God will tell us when we need to know. Chris was getting very anxious about every hurricane crossing the Atlantic. I had to put him in check, so to speak."
Pastor Pedro Martinez, who at one time allowed Cole to speak at his Iglesia Cristiana Amor Church in southwest Dade, also has lost contact with the erstwhile prophet. "The last time I spoke with Chris was probably a couple of months ago," Martinez says. When asked about other churches' reactions to Cole, he adds, "I still consider him a friend. But the prophecy didn't come true, and I understand why other brothers and sisters would distance themselves from him."
After several inquiries Cole surfaces. He is working in Palm Beach County learning a new trade as a home health nurse. His hair is cut into a broad Mohawk. He explains that he changed his phone number because of harassing calls and, in the process, the phone company made a mistake and disconnected his line. Then he brings up the For Sale sign: "I'm in a time in my life where I am being violently uprooted," he explains, almost cheerfully. "We go through tests, and I'm being tested. I'm in a situation where everything I have is falling away. My income has dropped considerably."
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Of 100 photography clients, 90 have deserted. Perhaps his proselytizing alienated some. "I warned a lot of people on South Beach because they were my clients. I think I scared some of them off."
Meanwhile the churches shun him. He's even been attacked from within his organization. "I've had women come into the group who thought if they helped me, I'd marry them. When I refuse their advances, they spread nasty rumors."
But his resolve to prepare for the hurricane is stronger than ever. He sees warning signs everywhere. As an example he mentions the murder of Gianni Versace. Versace's killer was Andrew Cunanan. He points out the killer's first name is the same as the 1992 hurricane. "I believe it was a sign showing us where the next Andrew is going to hit," he says.
He pauses, then says sternly, "I have a strong feeling that next year it will come to pass.