She came from the West, a demure Category One, letting us think she was steady, docile, and relatively harmless.
But when Hurricane Wilma blew ashore and crossed Florida in a flash, she was a bitch. She toppled a multistory dry dock in Sunny Isles Beach, launched a 30-foot sailboat and a half-dozen Jet Skis onto Bayshore Drive in Coconut Grove, and she popped out hundreds of windows from swaying skyscrapers in downtown Miami.
Six people died. County parks were all closed. Ninety-eight percent of us were without electricity.
It wasn't all bad news. Wilma also brought us together. Take the story of Dave, a psychologist who rendezvoused with an ex-girlfriend, Doris, on Sunday night at Le Tub, the über-rustic Intracoastal-side bar in Hollywood. Though tele-experts had been bombasting for days about the dangerous storm, and wind was howling by early evening, the pair didn't pay much attention. She was describing a tempestuous relationship with a possessive boyfriend. About 10:00 p.m., they were still blathering when the bartender said something like, "Don't you think you folks should get moving?" and muttered, "Category Three."
"What?" they gasped. They had been thinking more like Cat One. So they bottoms-upped and split. They made their way south on A1A, through the eerie, muggy 30-mile-per-hour gusts safely to Dave's South Beach crib, where they continued to drink alcoholic beverages. Soon they forgot about Wilma and got cozy.
By about 2:00 a.m. man and woman were in bed about to get very cozy when Dave looked out the bedroom window and for the first time beheld the intensity of Wilma's awesome, pure, and strangely anti-aphrodisiacal power. "Then I wasn't that interested in sex anymore," Dave confessed.
Several hours and two massive hangovers later, the wind subsided and the clouds dispersed. Dave's neighbor's Mini Cooper had been flattened by a tree, but his own sedan was okay. He ferried Doris home to her place in North Dade and, sadly, gave her but a kiss goodbye.
The bitch storm did something good for the couple, though. On the way to Doris's place, they spotted a demolished rack of wrecked boats. Her demonic ex's craft was among them, she observed.
As the storm subsided, a diminutive lady in her sixties screamed into the receiver of a public telephone that had been ripped apart and knocked to the ground by a falling tree. She looked furious and happy at the same time.
"Can you do this again oh, please," she belted to the heavens so that the tourists on Lincoln Road not far from Van Dyke Café could hear. Some laughed. Others took photos.
"Are you mad at this phone for some reason?" she was asked.
"How did you guess? I hate it! I divorced my husband because of that damn phone."
The story was short. Before cell phones, she explained, she had discovered that her husband was having an affair. So she followed him and learned that every evening he ran to that phone to call the other woman.
"I never touched that phone afterwards," she explained. "And I'm happy that it's dead."
Monday at about 1:00 p.m., after the storm was over, South Beach denizens trickled from their apartments to survey the damage. Ted Scott, gray hair spilling from under a gray ball cap, collected his thoughts on a bench outside the Miami Beach Convention Center.
Scott had spent the worst hours of Wilma outside, his only protection from the storm the concrete entryway to Hall D, across from the center's box office. "If you're inside, you're not really experiencing the hurricane," he said, rubbing his wiry beard and shifting his sky blue flip-flops on the sidewalk.
Scott, who's 52 years old, is a recovering alcoholic with a distaste for homeless shelters. He found the perch during Katrina, his first hurricane spent outdoors, and declared it the safest place in town. "If I die there, I'm supposed to die," he explained, rolling his head back to the tune of a high-pitched laugh.
He arrived in his spot about 2:00 a.m. as the wind began to kick up, and slept the night on a trash bag full of newspapers. He awoke twice to see bookshelf-size chunks of metal roofing whipping down Convention Center Drive. "They were scraping, and it was like a Schwarzenegger movie with the truck scraping down the road," he said, referring to a scene from Terminator 2.
Sometime during the night, an eighteen-wheeler's trailer skated across the convention center's parking lot, where it came to rest on its side. Concrete planters the size of bathtubs rolled over like squat bowling pins. A black sedan forced itself on a parking meter that twisted like a used lollipop stick.
Scott said he wasn't afraid. Hurricanes don't top his list of woes.
By afternoon, the sun was out, and straggling gusts tickled brackish gutter pools as the hollow ping of building alarms echoed faintly. His trash bag in one hand and a banana-yellow beach bag on his shoulder, Scott ambled off between rows of wind-torn Royal Palms, holding his cap tight against the wind.
About 3:00 p.m. Monday, Hallie Hendler, who manages building three of North Miami's legendary Jockey Club, surveyed the scene outside the building off Biscayne Boulevard. The howling gales toppled trees in the parking lot, churned up chunks of concrete, and shredded the tall rows of chainlink fence surrounding the tennis courts. "I don't even know where to start," she said wearily.
Leaning on an aluminum cane and dressed in crisp black slacks and loafers, she trudged up the stairs into the lobby. There was a sprig of leaves in her hair from her trek through the waist-high thicket of felled trees blocking the building's entrance.
"Welcome to the crazy house," said Fred, one of the guards. His shirt, normally a crisp white, was crumpled, and he had a bloody gouge over his left eye. He explained that he and five other guards had to rescue the residents from six of the units after the hurricane shattered the glass exterior walls, transforming the apartments into vacuum chambers. "Going in those places was like walking into Poltergeist," he added. "We had to throw all our weight against the doors just to open them."
Many residents holed up in their closets. No one was badly hurt, but a flying plastic container slammed Fred in the head while he rescued a couple and their baby daughters.
Then Fred and Hallie traveled to the twelfth floor to inspect one of the worst-hit apartments. A gold placard bearing the number 1257 dangled off the front door, and shards of glass littered the carpet. Inside, the gleaming hardwood floors had been swept clean of all furniture. The winds had sucked them out through a hole that once was a wall of windows.
By 8:30 a.m. Wilma had pulverized at least a dozen houseboats, including all the vessels docked at the Bayshore Yacht & Tennis Club marina next door to Harbor West in North Bay Village. In fact, Wilma had completely washed away the Bayshore marina's wood dock. The houseboat denizens were also worried about Clement Mikelis, an 81-year-old World War II veteran who was still inside his boat when it sank.
When the sky began to clear shortly before noon, onlookers and a CNN news crew had gathered to watch as fire rescue personnel searched for Mikelis among the ruins. For an hour firefighters sawed and hacked their way through the vessel's wooden roof.
Then a North Bay Village cop driving an unmarked silver Ford Mustang annoyingly blared his police sirens in a feeble attempt to force the onlookers to return to their vehicles.
Finally the rescue workers located Mikelis, who was sitting in a lounge chair, dressed in his blue pajamas and knee-high white socks.
On the battered dock, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Lt. Eric Baum didn't waste any time calling television stations to ensure media coverage of his boys pulling off their daring rescue. "We're about to wheel him out, so get here now," Baum was overheard telling a news desk assignment editor.
At 12:45 p.m. at least five camera operators recorded the money shot of Mikelis being carried by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue from his sunken boat to the waiting ambulance parked in the street outside the Harbor West Apartments. On the seawall, Mikelis's neighbors cheered with chants of "All right, Clem!" and "We love you, man!"
At day's end, Jackie Wuestenfeld stood on the buckled dock next to the remains of her houseboat, a hulking structure with taupe clapboard siding and a pitched roof. Its faade had been sheared off, its roof peeled open like a tin can, and its bottom two stories submerged in the bay.
"Is this yours?" asked a perky blond neighbor standing a few feet away and holding up a small painting of a red-rock mountain she'd fished out of the water.
"Sure is," Jackie said, taking a swig of a Diet Coke and a puff on her cigarette. "That's a famous mountain in Arizona. It was in 54 John Wayne movies."
Jackie, a spunky entrepreneur with a mop of curly red hair and leathery brown skin, lived with her husband Tom in the 3400-square-foot floating palace, which rose three stories above the marina and boasted five bedrooms, four bathrooms, walk-in closets, skylights, two massive decks, and oriental rugs scattered over hardwood floors.
Now all is lost, and one of their cats, an eighteen-year-old purebred Siamese, is missing.
Jackie bought the place for $100,000 more than a decade ago and invested $400,000 in it. She lived alone there until meeting Tom three years ago. It's been less than a year since they moved the boat from its spot in front of the Jockey Club to what would become its final resting spot in North Bay Village.
Although Jackie and Tom had installed high-end hurricane shutters and an $18,000 roof, they had no insurance. "Last time it was appraised, it was worth $2.3 million," she said. "We come away from this with nothing. I'm kind of over having a house ever."
Ted's Hideaway on South Beach opened at noon the day after the storm with two bartenders. By 12:30 p.m. a crowd consisting largely of grizzled men occupied every chair, drinking beer and munching potato chips. A pair of enormous Rottweilers happily chased each other around the bar, followed by a pint-size mutt.
Then a black pickup truck with oversize wheels pulled up on the sidewalk and opened its doors, channeling a soundtrack of house music into the plywood-covered bar.
James C. Beavers, a South Florida version of Norm from Cheers, grumbled somewhat at the arrival of the pickup. Beavers is a large man in a green T-shirt, fishing hat, and sunglasses. He lives above the Burger King on Fifth Street, an apartment he refers to as "Club BK."
After a half-hour outside, the pickup drove away and Beavers burst into applause.
Beavers didn't like the music?
"Not coming out of the window of that pickup," he growled. "It if was Johnny Cash, it'd be a different story."
He took a swig from his beer. "Guy thinks just 'cause we don't have power and the jukebox is out, we want to listen to him."
Unfortunately the pickup did a lap around the block. Three hours later it was still outside.
About 1:30 p.m. at the Yacht Club at Third Street and Alton Road, residents carrying digital cameras, cell phones, and camcorders scoured the streets. There, what visitors to the building had naively assumed was a parking lot actually turned out to be a violent, air-sucking wind tunnel. Cars were swept on top of one another like leaves in autumn.
Carolyne Grenier, a native of France who has lived on the twentieth floor of the Yacht Club for two years, remembered the morning's events. "At around 8:00 a.m. the power went out, and I could feel the building shaking." Wilma was by far the worst she has seen in four years on Miami Beach. "From the window I could see pieces of roofs peeling off. The tiles were flying off of Nikki Beach."
By 2:30 p.m. Monday, police were alarmed by motorists' behavior at thousands of traffic lights that had no power. "We want people to treat those intersections like a four-way stop," said Miami-Dade Police Detective Joanne Duncan, her voice weary with futility. "Just pretend there are stop signs."
But not everyone heeded the rules. One accident occurred at the intersection of Kendall Drive and SW 127 Avenue, when a 26-year-old man in a blue Mustang convertible sped through the light without stopping. A young woman (who tearfully declined New Times's request for a roadside interview) driving a pearl Lincoln Navigator clipped the Mustang's tail end, sending it careening onto the shoulder.
The woman slowly backed up the SUV and pulled over, where she emerged, already on her cell phone, hysterically telling "Daddy" about the accident.
Mechanic Luis Garcia exited his Mustang, spitting invective in Spanish. "Bro, people don't know how to drive," he energetically said. "This is bullshit!" Asked if he was aware of the traffic rules at lightless intersections, Garcia said, "Yeah, you fucking go when it's your turn."
Things didn't get much better. Between Monday noon and Tuesday noon, MDPD logged 57 accidents, twenty of them with injuries. "There are 2600 traffic lights in Miami-Dade, and by Tuesday afternoon, 150 of them were working, which is a lot better than yesterday, when we were in double-digits," said Miami Police Department spokesman Lt. Bill Schwartz.
Dressed in a nondescript black wife-beater tank top and tattered blue jeans, Reiki healer Ted Nickell invited a crew of seven hard drinkers into his apartment inside a turquoise Art Deco building on Second Street and Collins Avenue.
A handsome devil with long black hair and a full beard, the earthy Nickell rolled up a joint of some serious chronic and passed it around. He and a visitor lamented the hurricane tax that pot dealers had implemented shortly before Wilma's arrival. "Yeah, dude, prices went up," Nickell said. "I normally get half an ounce for $150, $175. My guy was charging me an extra $40 on Saturday because the storm was coming."
Nevertheless, Nickell and his crew said South Beach is the place to weather a storm. "For us it's a celebration of life," Nickell commented. "We're always partying on South Beach. A hurricane only enhances the experience. We don't fear it. We embrace it."
By Tuesday, the City of Miami Fire Department resumed response operations. Calls were being prioritized in critical order. Miami Police had made five arrests in looting-related incidents. Until damage assessments are complete, the Rickenbacker Causeway will remain closed to local traffic, police said. The road was open to emergency vehicles only.
Though the Brickell Avenue tower of law firm and lobbying powerhouse Greenberg Traurig appeared trashed from the outside, a man who answered the phone at GT offices Tuesday said that most people there had battened down the hatches. Doors facing windows of which more than 25 were blown in on upper stories were closed, sparing the interior from the worst wind and water damage.
Others obviously suffered more. The Home Depot at 3030 SW Eighth St. in Miami opened Tuesday morning with a full staff of floor assistance and cashiers. Ken Gaspar of Coconut Grove stood peacefully in line waiting to buy batteries and supplies not only for himself but also for his electricity-wanting neighbors on West Trade Avenue. "The line's not too bad, about half an hour," Gaspar said. "I'm resigned to some time without power. At least it's a lot cooler this time than it was when the power was out for Katrina."
Back at Ted's Hideaway, some time after darkness fell, the black pickup truck was replaced by a smaller car, this one blaring rock music from its open doors. It was after curfew, but the crowd was steady. Inside, Ted's was packed nearly airless, a warm, candlelit bastion of camaraderie in contrast to the eerie quiet outside.
The same bartenders had worked since noon, and although their numbers had multiplied, they wearily announced last call, wandering through the bar with plastic cups for people whose bottles were still full. "Hell no, we won't go!" jokingly yelled reveler Tony Cho. But the Miami Beach Police had arrived, and it was time to head home.
Outside on Second Street the air was chilly, and partiers leaving the bar shivered as they zipped up their sweatshirts. A few stragglers wandered through the neighborhood with flashlights and lanterns, picking their way over fallen trees. Where the winds of Wilma had whipped violently that morning the air was now cool and breezy ,the only sound the hum of generators and the occasional car passing by. Silhouettes of dark buildings were punctuated by candlelit squares, but the darkness was total and profound. On Monday night the stars shone brighter than usual.
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