Tom Carlson

Waiting for Floyd

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.

"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.

"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

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 --

"No! You can't write that!" barked John Morales, his brown eyes flashing from behind rimless rectangular spectacles. "You don't understand; they'll kill us."

"And you're not going to write that we took smoke breaks outside, are you?" asked Josie Goytisolo, executive producer for special programs, whose brand is Winston.

Between spying on the competition and scurrying outside for (infrequent) nicotine breaks, the good folks at the Channel 10 Hurricane Help Line did offer quite a bit of succor. In both Spanish and English they described the latest forecasts, gave out the phone numbers of Red Cross and county government rumor-control hotlines, and directed residents (as well as several flustered tourists from as far away as Mexico and Great Britain) to shelter.

Goytisolo's phone rang. It was a South Miami-Dade woman whose elderly mother was stranded in the Forte Towers apartments in Miami Beach. Goytisolo, frazzled yet focused, began dialing the standard emergency numbers. Muttering and scowling as she navigated voice-mail hell, she eventually reached a fire-rescue lieutenant at the City of Miami's emergency operations center. The lieutenant in turn reached a Miami Beach fireman by phone, ensuring the woman's safe evacuation.

"That's the story," the producer stated, looking both tired and relieved during a smoke break. "We certainly made a big difference in one family's life." -- Ted B. Kissell

As the weary Channel 10 crew finished yakking, a clan of sailboat and houseboat dwellers giddily drank in Floyd's intoxicating breezes on the banks of the Miami River beneath an expressway overpass. It was after midnight -- long past the usual bedtime hour -- but the lights were still on at Duane and Janice Sargent's place, an old houseboat tucked into a twenty-foot slip built back when this was a swanky part of town. A strand of bunny-rabbit Christmas lights decorated one side of the boat. Refuse from the industrial waterway floated in the shallows around the vessel. Inside, a television droned with the banter of local reporters who had little actual news of the storm. Outside, on the wooden deck that served as a patio along the portside of the boat, Floyd was generating his own mysterious information flow.

Janice was reciting her poetry, which she has never put into writing. Bearing witness were an airport baggage handler named Mike who lives on a sailboat, a young Webpage designer named Fred who recently bought a houseboat a few paces down river, Janice and Duane's eleven-year-old daughter Ayla, and Lisday, a twenty-year-old woman from Camagüey, Cuba, whose husband was snoozing with their newborn baby in a catamaran docked nearby. Duane, a self-described "crazy old Vietnam veteran" who works at a nearby boat yard, had already retired to rest up for a 5:00 a.m. evacuation. Under a Perrier patio umbrella, a large pile of shrimp remained from a communal barbecue. Most of those present had shifted to a dessert of beer or Jamaican rum.

Janice, a youthful 49-year-old who prefers domestic vodka, was on a roll: "Knowing this hour to be my last, I traverse a crystal mountain," she began in a rich, raspy voice, one leg crossed over another, eyes closed. In blue jeans and a dark Bahamas T-shirt, Janice sat on a long bench fashioned decades ago from old planks of wood that had been part of the Orange Bowl. "Excited, my heart is beating fast./I pause to sip the champagne fountain./Slowly I pass the land of grass and across the sea my eyes I cast/Expecting to see the splintered mast of the shimmering shadow ship./On distant horizon appears that form and I relinquish helplessly my soul in the midst of raging storm while the bells of the underworld toll./The stars frown as they look down upon this nonmortal sight./And on and on into the night sails the shimmering shadow ship."

"Yay, Mommy!" Ayla clapped and yelled. Then she shouted, feigning horror: "It's raining. Woo hoo! We're all going to die!" Mike sat enraptured by Janice's poems. He begged for another. Janice thought she was out, but tried to please him: "The wind began to BLOW!" she bellowed, then let out a husky laugh, her finely combed blond hair tucked neatly behind her ears.

"No, you've got another one of my favorites in you," Mike insisted. Janice paused, then began again.

Earlier in the day, most members of this riverside community tied down their vessels. Mike, who asked that his last name not be published, secured his medium-size sailboat, Breeze, with five ropes attached at various angles and degrees of tautness. The approach of the deadly storm inspired Mike to put life into perspective. "You can sort of sense a sense of closure here," the philosopher-baggage handler reflected. "We've pretty much resigned ourselves that we can do with what we have. And that we have to live with nature's forces." If Floyd failed to turn northward and approached his floating abode, Mike's plan was to camp out in the garage of his landlord's house a few hundred feet away. "You can be sure that this is a place where people sought refuge," he theorized. "This is where people always came, this section of the river, because it provided food, shelter, fresh water, high ground, and protection from the storms."

Duane would take an entirely different approach. There was no way he would hang around while a category 4 storm and tidal surge cruised upstream. "I have a great fear: If the hurricane hits, the cable TV will go out! Ya ha ha!" Duane exclaimed, in a voice kind of like Louis Armstrong's, if Armstrong had grown up in Maine. An instant later he was dead serious. "I'm going to put my kids in the car and go to grandma's house. End of fucking interview," he growled. "I'm not going to let these fine little guys get hurt. That's the bottom line."

After Duane returned from Southeast Asia in 1969, he went to college, then built boats with his dad in Ecuador. At age 52, the goodhearted wisecracker still knows all the lyrics of "Alice's Restaurant," though his guitar is missing a few strings. "Duane plays folk music," he growled again, referring to himself. "If you bring me some strings for my guitar, I can play you some of the coolest John McLaughlin songs you've ever heard. And John Sebastian!"

Janice, a Kansas native, met Duane in Miami during the Seventies after she had fled Midwestern winters. These days she waits tables at Grunberg's Deli in downtown Miami and on weekends greets cruise passengers at Miami International Airport. The couple has lived on the boat for the past eleven years. After Hurricane Andrew they relocated to a slip on the Little River in Belle Meade. Soon, though, they moved back to the river so that Ayla and her ten-year-old brother, Jack, could attend a better school.

Suddenly Duane leaped, like a flying squirrel, from the houseboat deck onto the patio area. He made a loud, clunky, one-point landing but turned it into a wobbly recovery at the last instant. It was good timing, though, because Janice was preparing her final poem of the night. It was something about the hurricane. A light breeze rippled over the river and through the trees.

"Hurricane my ass," she said, "where is the bonnie lass?" -- Kirk Nielsen


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