A Flood of Frances
Who the hell let Frances in?
Long before Florida's second hurricane this year blustered through the door and commenced spilling drinks, throwing the furniture around, and peeling away roofs, she had worn out her welcome.
Frances was one neurotic storm. Loud, weepy, volatile, ponderous. Preposterously unpredictable.
In the lead-up, on Friday afternoon, she showed South Floridians moments of blue-sky amiability. For a lucky few who were able to elude the police roadblocks at all the Intracoastal bridges, there was carefree beach time, with loons frolicking in the waves like kids playing hooky. But then came those scary little "feeder bands" with gusty winds and fusillades of rain, letting folks know: This ain't gonna be no beach party, boys.
Nobody knew what would come next, not even television experts like WPLG-TV's (Channel 10) Don Noe and weather legend WFOR-TV's (Channel 4) Bryan Norcross, who stumbled over their words and each other's predictions trying to explain the lack of precise information.
On Saturday, after the stressful wait ("You comin' in or not, Frances?"), the buzz saw finally made it to land, a bellowing scourge disguised in Category 2 clothing. Frances raked her way through Palm Beach County, stacking yachts atop one another, mashing buildings, and endlessly complicating millions of lives. There were 105-mph winds, a gaping 12-foot deep sinkhole on Interstate 95 opened by the rain, and 6 million people without power across the sweltering Sunshine State. At least nine deaths were blamed on the storm in Florida. Damage estimates neared $15 billion. Frances had gone psycho on us.
By the time we finally ushered her out the door on Sunday, it felt like the end of a long, scary affair. A lost weekend, with the requisite bloody hang-over.
New Times writers spread out across wind-torn South Florida for Frances' three-day extravaganza, like spotters reporting back about the enemy's armaments.
Here's what they found: It's 2:10 p.m., and the first serious squalls are lashing Fort Lauderdale. At Chad Cutlar's beach apartment near A1A and Sunrise Boulevard -- in an area that is under evacuation orders -- Cutlar, Sarah McClure, Sean Dolan, and several others are settling in for a hurricane party.
Cutlar, who is 30 years old, is a sous chef at a nearby beachfront restaurant, but this weekend, he's engaged in his second calling: hurricane junkie. He weathered his first 'cane in 1984 in Maryland; Frances will be number 14.
The old pro has spent hundreds of dollars to prepare for the storm, most of it on booze. But there are also a crate of candles, four five-gallon jugs of water, bags of food, and a propane burner.
Outside in the street in front of his apartment, he says, "We're crazy, but we still know what's going on. We've got all the essentials: Jack, Seagram's, Jäeger, Cuervo, burners..." He takes a swig from his cup, a brown liquid that is rapidly being diluted by the sheets of rain marching down the street. The gusts of wind are strong enough to slide him down the sidewalk as he braces against it.
Eric del Rosal, 34 years old, owner of Bulldog Tattoo, which is next door to Cutlar's place, is putting the finishing touches on the plywood protecting his shop. As soon as the last panel goes up, he sets to work with spray paint, interspersing tattoo-worthy storm designs with unevenly scrawled slogans.
"Run you scared pussies!" is emblazoned above the door.
The tension is getting to some people. At 4:15 p.m., Cutlar's partiers are on the roof in driving rain, looking down at Bikini Bob's across the street. Behind metal storm shutters, the bar is still hosting a few loyal patrons when suddenly two of them march out into the street. Oblivious to the cop car parked at the end of the block, one man tosses aside his T-shirt, and the pair squares off. Shirtless takes an ineffectual swing, and then his less-inebriated opponent tackles him onto the hard pavement. They wrestle for a few seconds, swaddled in protective drunkenness, before the cruiser pulls up, lights flashing. The cop jumps out, scattering a small group of spectators. A telescoping ASP baton appears in his hand, directing one gladiator inside while the other, bleeding profusely from a scraped elbow, heads off down the street. Cutlar's crowd bursts into applause.
By 5:30 p.m., Frances is showing one of her deceptive better sides, and the weather clears dramatically. At Bikini Bob's, the storm shutters roll back. It's business as usual for 10 or so diehard patrons. The neon signs and electronic trivia games are still on. Though much of South Florida is plunged into darkness, the small block that Bob's shares with a Holiday Inn and a few other businesses will keep electricity throughout.
Cutlar's crowd heads out to the beach to gape at the pounding surf. Monty Lalwani, 22, comes out of a nearby building with a football and assorted brothers and cousins. Soon, the ball is sailing back and forth as a deserted A1A becomes a football field. Dolan makes a particularly nice diving grab and leaves some shoulder skin on the highway centerline. Finally one of the cop cars that periodically cruise by stops.
"Get off the beach and out of the street!" the officer barks.
At 8 p.m., Commercial Boulevard near Dixie Highway is eerily empty, but inside Alligator Alley, ebullient club owner and jam-band bassist Kilmo is pouring a Pumpkinhead draft. The newscaster on the small television on the back counter says the sluggish behemoth should make landfall at 2 a.m. "Yeah," Kilmo says wryly, "2 a.m. December 29."
Why was Kilmo riding the storm out in the partially shuttered, storefront joint?
"What's more Florida than a hurricane party at a Florida bar? If we're not open, no one should be open. We're just not closing."
The club has drawn a cultural hodgepodge of partiers, including a family of three that has taken up a high-top table across from the bar. The petite, short-haired Brazilian mother, Eliana Kuras; the round-faced, gray-haired husband, Janusz; and their fabulously good-looking, 18-year-old daughter, Samantha, had ventured from the security of their home for some wings and drinks.
"We got bored," Eliana says.
Her daughter explains: "She's just trying to get drunk. Last time we were out, she fell off a table at the bar. She, like, forgot how to wear heels."
Kilmo hopes some fellow musicians will stop by to join him in jammin' to Frances. "I want to play bass, do the nasty, and smoke a cigar at the same time," he says. "'Cause I'm greedy like that. I'm a true hedonist. I told people: If the winds are 100 mph and you're lost and the shutters are on the front, knock on the back. We'll be here. However, so it doesn't sound like you're knocking like the wind bangs, you gotta knock the Bo Diddley beat."
Another patron, Bobby Bell, has his own take on the 'cane.
"Here's to the breezes that blows through the treeses, that exposes the places that teases, pleases, and sometimes spreads diseases. Down the hatch, here's to the snatch!"
"That's almost semi-misogynistic," Kilmo criticizes. "However, we'll let it slide."
It's past midnight, and partying people are gravitating to the old lowest common denominator -- drunkenness and lechery. Fort Liquordale's Himmarshee is almost a ghost town, with most bars boarded up tighter than Prohibition. But Dicey Riley's is open, and a few slack-jawed young men sit at the bar. As two ladies enter and quickly leave, one dark-haired fellow yells, "No! Come back!"
Welcome to Night of the Living Horny.
For the folks vowing to defy Frances with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, the pickin's are slim tonight. Over at Capone's, one of the only other downtown clubs open at this hour, a DJ is spinning hip-hop and techno. Sadly, he does not have "Rock You Like a Hurricane." This bar is also filled with mostly men, and as two ladies walk in, that glittery-eyed look of convicts fresh from prison appears in the hombres' eyes. What gives?
"Everybody's got cabin fever," says Jay, a muscular dude clad in a black cowboy hat. "We're just trying to have fun."
Jay gives the ladies an appraising once-over.
"OK, we're looking for girls," he admits. "Trolling for chicks. Everyone here is looking for a fun time during a dangerous time. My night started as a hurricane party, but I can't stay inside all night. I've got priorities."
"My first priority is to get laid," he says. "My second priority...Well, if I don't end up getting laid, just to have fun. And if I die, at least I died having fun. And hopefully getting laid."
Late morning. A New Times writer tests the roadblocks, waving a press card at a klatch of stony-eyed state troopers on 17th Street. "I'm a reporter," he says. "We're doing a hurricane story, and we want to check out the beach."
"What channel you with?" asks a trooper.
"No channel. New Times."
The trooper rolls his eyes.
"Make a U-turn," he says. "Go back where you came from."
Scott Medvin, a tall 24-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses, blue jeans, and white tennis shoes, sits at the media information desk at the Broward Emergency Operations Center, a three-story, windowless bunker off Pine Island Road in Plantation.
As first weeks on a job go, Medvin has it rough. Having been hired last week in Broward County's public information office, the occasional New Times freelancer learned two days ago that he would have the thankless, sleepless job of keeping the media abreast of every fallen tree limb and rain cloud this side of the Everglades.
"Yeah," Medvin says, "trial by fire is right."
He rises from his desk and walks through the center's "war room," where roughly 200 state and county employees sit at computer monitors and around conference tables, keeping tabs on the storm that the media geeks simply can't help but compare to 1992's Hurricane Andrew. Medvin points to a wall with three large monitors showing radar and satellite imagery depicting Hurricane Frances over the Bahamas. "That's the Sun-Sentinel's favorite place," he says. "They like to get photos of people in front of all those screens."
Medvin points again, this time to the corner. "Now let me show you the call center," he says. A crowded, narrow space to the right of the war room houses about 50 people answering telephone calls from concerned residents. Yesterday, they received more than 8,000 calls. Residents' most pressing concerns appear to be whether it's safe to go to the beach and why -- oh God, why?! -- garbage collection has stopped.
Why? It's the safety, stupid.
There are no invigorating glimpses of waves or romps with a football for shelter dwellers.
Melanie Guevara and her family were among the first to sign in at the Red Cross shelter set up at Palm Beach Central High School in Wellington. Like the rest of the 4,000 Frances refugees who ended up there, they were assigned a corridor but provided with no cots or sleeping bags. She; her boyfriend, Gildardo; her 14-year-old daughter, Marissa; and the girl's month-old baby boy spent Thursday night sleeping on the floor. So Friday morning, Guevara raced back to her Lake Worth trailer home to collect a couple of air mattresses.
Still, with the wind gusting outside, the 33-year-old with long brown hair and a pierced right eyebrow can't sleep.
"Even at 3 a.m., I'm outside watching the wind," she says. "I'm getting claustrophobia in the hallways, and I'm stressed about my kids."
Three of her daughters -- aged 8, 11, and 12 -- are staying with her mother in Greenacres.
Guevara has pitched in as a Red Cross volunteer, helping to make sandwiches for those staying at the shelter, participating in the cleanup squad, and translating for Spanish-speaking shelter-dwellers. So far, she has helped to break up fights and delivered lunches to the restless mass of people. She has also helped to clean up after a woman who arrived sick and bleeding.
By Saturday afternoon, the chaos of foam out to sea beyond Fort Lauderdale has coalesced into sets of colossal rollers ten feet high, breaking from left to right in perfect glassy tubes. On the reef a half-mile out, the surf is so massive that it looks like a snow-covered mountain range, the tops sheared off by the wind. But there's bad news for the Cutlar crowd. A visitor from the mainland has brought word that they are now outside the "cone of probability" that predicts Frances' landfall.
At 5 p.m., a neighbor spreads the news that the Hut, a bar and package store just off Sunrise on the mainland side of the bridge, is still open. Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle has banned liquor sales on the island, and there's virtually nothing open. The Cutlar party is running perilously short of booze and smokes, so they decide to make a supply run.
The Hut is packed with partiers. Cutlar and Co. lay in more supplies: Jäeger, whiskey, juice, and cigarettes. The loud music, lights, and crowd are disorienting after hours of isolation on the island.
By 10 p.m., they come to the sad realization that the storm will not get any worse. For a long moment, a feeling of gloom settles over the party as Cutlar and friends sit in the candlelight and listen to the rain against the storm shutters.
"I'm ready for this to be over," McClure says. She estimates that the storm has cost her $1,000 in lost weekend waitressing shifts.
Del Rosal brings over an ornate bongo drum, and they pass around the chilled Jäeger. The mood picks up. Cutlar fires up the propane stove and creates a concoction of Ramen noodles, eggs, tuna, and spices. The hurricane party gets rolling again; the only missing ingredient is Frances.
Alan Patrusevich, owner of West Palm Beach's bohemian Quonset hut art studios, heard his roof fly away sometime after midnight. He got out of bed just in time to see Mother Nature make a skylight above his head. Then he watched by flashlight as walls lifted into the darkness. "I wanted to see the end," the silver-haired Patrusevich explains later while sipping a bottle of Miller behind his cluttered desk. "Curiosity, morbid curiosity, that's all. It has nothing to do with courage."
Hurricane Frances claimed a hefty chunk of the rear portion of the barracks-style Quonset hut, which has been home to artists and musicians for more than a decade. Patrusevich says the weakest part of the building, an expansion "scabbed on" in the 1950s, drifted into space in the 100-mph winds. Even with a section of his home/business gone, Patrusevich sees Frances as a partial blessing. The fact that the Quonset hut didn't disintegrate in the storm could actually help him keep the place.
Last month, city officials decided that the Quonset hut was so dilapidated that it should be torn down. Patrusevich appealed. Now he hopes his success riding out Frances shows that the buildings are strong enough to withstand the worst. Besides, Patrusevich is hopeful the hurricane has given the city better things to do. "They've got bigger fish to fry than me now," Patrusevich says. "At least, I hope so."
Sunday morning brings a citywide driving ban to the sodden citizens of Jupiter, which has taken the brunt of Frances. The entire town is without electricity. High-tension power lines hang like black snakes over intersections. The stop-and-go lights that haven't smashed to the pavement swing impotently dark. Fallen palm trees block lanes, turning some routes into a path-shifting game of Frogger. Cherry-flashing police cars roam around.
A toothless curfew is in effect. By 11 a.m., a herd of cars is roving the streets, their occupants looking for an open store or a way back home. Hunger, curiosity, and panic has set them in motion.
Weaving through the debris-ridden southbound lanes of Highway 1, several cars come upon two Jupiter police squad cars at an intersection near the city limits. "What's going on?" someone asks the cops.
"Where did you come from, and where do you belong?" shrieks an officer from behind the wheel. It's sprinkling, and his window is half open. A claim of journalistic inquiry is greeted less than cordially. The policeman's expression is that of a man who's just passed a kidney stone. A woman officer seated next to the screamer lumbers out of the car. She's wearing a yellow slicker with the hood up.
"Look, I'm getting tired of getting out of my car and getting wet telling people this: You need to turn around and go back to where you came from," she intones. "That's a power line over there. There's a curfew for the entire city." She strolls back to the dry comfort of the police sedan.
If it weren't for the police escort, the line of cars meandering past Palm Beach mansions about 2 p.m. Sunday might've looked like a bunch of tourists. In fact, the caravan was a collection of reporters brought by Palm Beach police to see the damage to the exclusive island. A local TV news crew and a cadre of newspaper scribes from across the state dreamed of being the first to spot destruction.
Instead, the reporters witnessed nothing more than a big puddle in front of the Breakers hotel, potted plants pushed over on tony Worth Avenue, and palm fronds strewn about on the lawn of Donald Trump's place. Luckily for the island, the north-south winds kept the ocean from drowning the island. Palm Beach police officers, looking like handsome action heroes in their gray-and-black camouflaged pants, seemed genuinely sad that they couldn't be better hosts. "Sorry there's not more to show you," Chief Mike Reiter explains at the end of the tour. "We just didn't get a lot of destruction."
At 2 p.m., the owners of the Hong Kong Café on Indiantown Road pull the plywood shutters off their front door. They fire up their gas grills and, in half darkness, begin stir-frying what might be the only restaurant grub available in Jupiter. Word of the Chinese food blazes through a nearby Hispanic neighborhood, and by 2:30, the place is mobbed with Spanish-speaking men deeply tanned from farm work.
A half hour later, the owners of a Citgo convenience store a few blocks east yank the plywood off their front door. Like cats hearing a can opener, the roving curfew-breakers -- who now number in the hundreds and ignore the police like New Yorkers disregard panhandlers -- flood the parking lot. Forty-five-year-old William Kernodle, with an unshaven face and newly buzzed head, is standing in a line of 25 or so. He's almost made it into the store, almost passed the plywood gates of heaven, when the owner looms at the door and pronounces, "We're closed for business," then locks himself in.
Kernodle takes it well but clearly feels he's been cheated again. Early this morning, he'd driven 20 miles through heavy rain, wind, and fallen trees into Martin County, where rumor-mongers had sworn there was an open convenience store. There wasn't.
He lives out in the western part of the county but wanted to be closer to the coast when the hurricane hit because he's a volunteer with the county's community emergency response team. For now, he and other volunteers are supposed to remain off the streets.
"I've been staying with seven Guatemalans up the street," explains Kernodle, who's small-framed but possesses an impressive gut. "Man, you'd think that these South Americans would understand hurricanes," he marvels. "But they had nothin' when I got there. No food. They had a generator but no gas. Jesus. They didn't have anything to put on their windows, so I pulled the plywood sheet off my pickup bed, and we nailed it to the biggest window."
The line has dispersed at the Citgo, but Kernodle notices a small human swell at a Shell station half a block down. "Gotta check this out," he mutters, fleeing toward the Shell.
Most of the tin-can houses of Kokomo Mobile Home Park near Lantana survived Frances intact. Not so Lucille Price's porch. Wind forced open the tacked-on, screened-in room, splitting and caving in its front as if a plow had moved through a snowdrift.
Outside, at 4 p.m. Sunday, Donna Schuler tries to figure out what to do. She lives a couple of doors down from Price. Her ex-husband, Jim, is visiting, so she enlists his help.
"Lucille's 83 years old," says Donna, her red-brown hair pinned close to her scalp, as she peels metal away from the gaping dent. "She's in New York right now. We need to do something to keep the elements out."
"We can't do anything," says Jim, a stocky man with white hair and a round nose. "Someone's going to have to repair this."
"She can't even walk up steps!" Donna shouts. "You think she can fix this?"
"No," Jim says. "I'm just saying, we can't do anything."
"I hope someone cares for me when I'm elderly," Donna says.
"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.
"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.
"It smelled like dirt as soon as it happened," she said.
Cutlar's crowd has been awakened by the sound of a bulldozer clearing the dunes of accumulated sand off of A1A. A local restaurant opens its doors and serves what food it has until it is gone. The party is the last to be served -- chicken tenders for breakfast.
"Thank God for something different," Cutlar says.
At 3 p.m., the sun is out and the breeze is mild. The pizza joint at the corner of Ninth Street and A1A opens for business. A civilian car drives by, then another. In the blink of an eye, there is bumper-to-bumper traffic. People driving slowly by point video cameras at a group of pedestrians as they stand on the corner. The blockade has been lifted, and they no longer have the neighborhood to themselves.
Soon, Cutlar and del Rosal are inviting friends up to the roof, slapping hands and swapping storm stories. In the absence of stoplights, the traffic below is chaotic.
"For 36 hours, there was a cop at every intersection, there were no people, and the lights were working," Cutlar muses. "Now, people are everywhere, but the lights are out -- and there's no cops."
A fresh supply of beer has kept the party going, but Dolan, McClure, Weber, and the others who rode out the storm there have scattered. The bubble of isolation has burst, and the letdown is palpable.
"For the next storm, I'm going to stock up double," Cutlar vows.
Rumor has it that another hurricane is brewing out in the Atlantic. They raise their bottles and toast.
Contributing to this story were: Trevor Aaronson, Eric Alan Barton, Jason Budjinski, Sam Eifling, Courtney Hambright, Rick Kennedy, Edmund Newton, Wyatt Olson, and Audra Schroeder.
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