A Flood of Frances

Small hurricane stories pack a wallop

"That's why you have kids," her ex-husband replies.

There isn't much to be done for the battered home. Donna finds a rusty three-iron and props it against the door, which is reclining to about 60 degrees off the floor. The bottom of the golf club slides on the carpet. It won't hold anything.

"This is terrible," Donna says.

Colby Katz
Post-Frances lack of electricity chased people outdoors in Pompano Beach.
Colby Katz
Post-Frances lack of electricity chased people outdoors in Pompano Beach.

"Of course it's terrible," Jim replies. He fumbles at the back of the porch, near a folded-up wheelchair. "Ah, rope!" he calls. He lashes the door handle to part of the wall. The front is still a loss, but at least the porch will no longer be a metal windsock.

He drives away in his truck, and she returns home, where the wind has sheered the front three feet of ceiling off of her porch. Inside, past the tidy living room decorated in cream and yellow, she has arranged pans in the hallway to catch leaks. Rain has invaded a hole in her roof. Brown spots fill the panels overhead. The water impregnated the ceiling until it retched insulation and debris into her bathroom and middle bedroom. Detritus still hangs like Spanish moss, dripping into her shower.

Her son is a roofer, so she won't have to pay for more than materials. "That's the only reason I'm not standing in a puddle of tears," she says as she stands outside her home, fondling an unlit cigarette as light seeps out of the sky and the wind picks up again.

At 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Tommy Bender is walking backward along Military Trail in Riviera Beach with his thumb out. A car stops for the 27-year-old, curly-headed butcher and his taller, crew-cut friend Jonathan Payne, and they clamber into a southbound car and profess amazement that anyone would stop. They have been walking about two miles and have maybe ten more to go, through the destruction in northeast Palm Beach County.

"We got stuck in a flood going to make sure his brother was OK," Bender says. "The car stalled out."

"He was fine -- my stepbrother was fine," Payne says. "My house in Lake Worth was fine. Watch out for this -- it'll screw your car up." Payne points to a minor pond that has sprung up on the roadway.

"I've been through two of these already," Payne continues, discussing the storm. "Last time, we were playing football through the hurricane. It wasn't too bad. See, look at the street signs. The lights are missing."

All the stoplights are out. Gas station canopies lie crumpled and useless under steel girders. Trees bend into roadways.

"Port-a-potty," Bender says, motioning to a blue plastic heap in the median.

"See these railroad signs?" Payne asks as the car approaches train tracks. "In Lake Worth, these are all down, wrapped around things. See these billboards? All the billboards are down."

"The water park's probably destroyed here," Bender says as they near Rapids Water Park in West Palm.

"Naw, dude. They're pretty well-built when you have 400-pound kids going down the slides," Payne says.

It's the billboards that took it hardest, wilting into parking lots and adult cabarets. At the few open convenience marts, lines stretch out the door. Somewhere in West Palm Beach, Bender and Payne notice streams of people leaving a storm shelter.

"Everyone's edgy right now, if you think about it," Payne says of the shelter dwellers.

"No one can take a shower, no one can turn a light on..." Bender says.

"I'm showered," Payne said. "Just walk down the street -- you'll be showered."

The car passes a Dolphins billboard hanging in tatters over two fat people at a pay phone -- a fair forecast of the team's upcoming season. "Zach Thomas is gone, right?" Payne asks. "Or, no, he's still under contract. And Ricky Williams left because he wanted to smoke pot, right? The man said, straight up, I'm quitting the team because I don't want to be lying about it. That's tight."

Some subjects transcend even major disasters.

The enormous, downed ficus trees at Sandpiper Cove apartments in Boynton Beach are practically a tourist site by 5 p.m. One in particular stands apart, though. A former behemoth, maybe 60 feet high and 100 feet across its canopy, lies prone across a yard. Men climb to pose for snapshots on the overturned root structure, which holds soil like a drape and reaches as high as the apartments' second story. Plastic sprinkler lines and veiny roots cling to the monster. You could hide an elephant in the silhouette of the base.

Margaret Bailey saw the thing fall early Saturday, before Frances smashed it. Bailey had watched from her tiny first-floor patio as days and hours of high wind bum-rushed the tree. "The ground was, like, breathing for about an hour and a half," she says through the screen on her patio. "The ground was actually pulling up. It would start low, and it would go back up again. Every little breath would take it up further. Then it would go back down."

She was filming the breathing ground until she heard deep crackling. She turned and ran inside, fearing that the roots might come up through her patio. They didn't, but they did shift an air conditioner and its concrete foundation right beside her.

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