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.

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