Miami was quiet after Hurricane Wilma's winds subsided. Millions of people sat in shuttered homes listening to the final raindrops and withering gusts. But within hours, people cranked up their cars and hit the streets.
The traffic signals that hadn't been blown away were without power, and drivers entered the automotive anarchy in great numbers. By Tuesday, October 25, the day after Wilma, things got weird. But not in the way you might expect.
"We actually had fewer calls, fewer traffic accidents reported [after the storm]," says Miami Police Lt. Bill Schwartz. "We had a population without working phones, and we had police trying to do everything they could to keep things moving. So people weren't making calls for minor accidents, and police weren't writing incident reports."
Miami-Dade Police Report
Miami-Dade cops reported an astounding twelve percent drop from the previous year in such calls during the month following Wilma to 4056.
But there was a lot of griping. Angry Anglos muttered about immigrants. Oldsters blamed young drivers, and moralists saw it all as another sign of cultural collapse.
"When the lights are out, it becomes a free-for-all," says Miami Police Ofcr. Victor Ramos, who directed traffic at Biscayne Boulevard and 79th Street, and Brickell Avenue and SW Eighth Street. Ramos assigns the blame to human nature, not misunderstanding of four-way stop etiquette: "It's not that drivers don't understand a four-way. They just don't care."
Drivers pushed the limits, even with police oversight. One SUV tried to blow through the intersection at 79th and Biscayne, almost taking Ramos with it. "Still, we didn't hand out too many tickets or make too many arrests it would have slowed things down," Ramos says. "In a situation like that, you don't want to write tickets for people who are already on edge."
Ramos's boss, Lt. Juan Gonzalez, says his cops had to be careful: "Everyone was really frustrated, running out of gas and stuck in traffic."
Rather than take turns at broken lights, some drivers attempted their own weird simulation of a traffic light, blowing through the intersection in groups, according to Ramos. "I think the game is Follow the Leader."
The busiest intersections might have been the biggest headache, but they were also relatively safe, if only because drivers stuck in gridlock don't have a chance to pick up speed. Rural roads were much more dangerous.
Around 5:00 p.m. the day Wilma struck, Sohail Khan, Akhtar Khan, and Mansar Khawaja were headed westbound on Miami Gardens Drive in a 1994 Mercedes sedan. Just west of NW 82nd Avenue the car ran into a low-hanging power line and brought the attached utility pole crashing down. The pole smashed the car's passenger side, killing one-year-old Akhtar.
On October 30, far to the west of Officer Ramos's gridlocked intersections, at the intersection of Okeechobee Road and 116th Way, a white Hyundai four-door was T-boned by a Dodge van. Two middle-age women and a little girl in the van were injured, as was the 52-year-old driver of the Hyundai, Roberto Mendez. His passenger, 69-year-old Raisy Diaz, suffered a direct hit and died at the scene. The incident is still under investigation.
In other cases, the law-breaking was clear. On October 31, at the intersection of NW 33rd Street and 112th Avenue, sixteen-year-old Tiffany Camejo decided the drivers in front of her were taking too long to turn. Rather than wait in line to make a left, Camejo pulled out of the turn lane, drove around the waiting cars, and blew through the stop sign. She was hit by 42-year-old Sara Jo Chastain of Pembroke Pines, who was driving about 30 mph.
The accident totaled Camejo's Honda and did about $700 in damage to Chastain's Toyota SUV. "I guess it's good nobody got hurt," says Hector Garcia, who was waiting at the stop sign when he saw the crash. "Everyone was pretty crazy after the hurricane; people were frustrated and stuff. But still, it seems like that didn't have to happen." The laconic Garcia was serene about the whole experience: "Hey, I've heard about a lot worse down here. Right now I've got my power back on and everything is good. I already forgot all about it."
By November 6, power had been restored to some of Miami-Dade County, but much of Opa-locka was still in the dark. Florida Highway Patrol Troopers Eugene Boykins and James Lane were directing traffic at the intersection of NW 27th Avenue and Ali Baba Avenue about eight o'clock in the morning. Many of the lights in the area were down, and patience was running low.
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Two frustrated drivers, Opa-locka residents Jeffery James and Devery Gordon, both visiting Harry's Grocery, two blocks south of the FHP troopers, had a fender-bender. Gordon backed into James in the parking lot. Then things got out of control. James punched Gordon in the face and went back to his car for a gun, firing three shots at Gordon.
A witness ran to the troopers at the intersection and was describing the shooting when James drove past, his car emitting smoke. Boykins and Lane took off after the 46-year-old, who blew through several manned intersections before his car quit on him and he took off running. He got 25 feet from the vehicle before he tripped and the .32 caliber went flying.
Boykins and Lane arrested the man and handed him over to Opa-locka police. Then they went back to directing traffic.