My Week with Wilma
Or, Nature's Leaf Blower in the State of Denial
by Ralph T. Castle
(Click on images for enlargements)
In the dim yellow glow from a Wal-Mart oil lamp, I sit at my kitchen table, cursing the State of Florida while I struggle to enter a few more keystrokes on a water-damaged laptop with a dying battery. My cat, Eddie, is having a fine time, prowling around outside in the total darkness of a landscape where all street lights are dead within a radius of 75 miles. I would join him for a stroll under the stars, except that the county police are liable to throw me in jail for violating the 7:30 curfew.
According to news estimates I am one of 3.5 million people in South Florida currently deprived of electricity. When Hurricane Wilma blew through a couple of days ago, she ravaged the landscape and scattered power lines like a petulant kid kicking over sand castles on a beach. This of course is what hurricanes normally do, but Wilma's range has astonished even seasoned veterans of the so-called Sunshine State. The power outage extends all the way from Miami, in the south, to Fort Pierce, on the way to Orlando. By my calculation the affected area encompasses 30,000 square miles.
My neighbors speak with first-name familiarity about bygone hurricanes, in the same way that they might chat about legendary bad guests who broke porcelain ornaments or left coffee stains on the carpet. When they talk of Wilma, though, their voices drop to a tone of subdued respect. No one has seen this scale of damage before, and behind each conversation lies an ominous subtext. The public servants of Florida are not known for their ability to think outside the box--or inside it, for that matter. My neighbors are starting to wonder exactly how our elected representatives will bootstrap us out of this mess.
Lack of electricity for me personally is not such a big deal. In my all-electric home I have no hot water, I can't cook anything, I have no refrigeration, no air conditioning, and of course no lights, but I do have my oil lamp, a low-wattage LED flashlight, and three weeks' supply of food. I am not worried about myself. What concerns me is everyone else. Something tells me that in my low-rent neighborhood, a typical Floridian's idea of hurricane preparedness is to buy half-a-dozen candles, a few big bags of potato chips, and a case of Bud Light.
Some canned food is available from a few grocery stores that have reopened using emergency generators, but already their shelves are half empty, and in any case their customers are running out of money. Since almost all workplaces are closed, employees are not receiving paychecks--and even if they did, all the banks and ATMs have shut down, while credit cards are worthless, because they cannot be authorized.
I have a couple-thousand dollars in cash, but when I mentioned this before the storm, people looked at me as if I were crazy. Florida, after all, has become notorious for generous bailouts of its "disaster victims," as the reckless optimists who choose to live on this precarious sandbar choose to describe themselves. Since federally funded handouts have become a happy fact of life, who needs extra cash?
Indeed, some food distribution centers have started giving away military rations, but these centers are widely scattered, and my neighbors may run out of gasoline to visit them, because people have been cruising around, admiring the hurricane damage as if they're on vacation. When their cars run dry, they will be unable to refuel, because the pumps in gas stations cannot function without electricity. Nor will anyone be able to ride the buses, since the buses have stopped running and are not expected to resume for the indefinite future.
Add it all up, and I see some folks getting hungry a couple of days from now. They may not deal with this in a very mature manner. Floridians tend to assume that in their feelgood semitropical paradise, they are exempt from adversity. In the words of "Frankli Speeking," who wrote a letter on this topic to the online edition of the Palm Beach Post: ". . . after being warned for days on end, people don't have the sense to stock up on a few days worth of food . . . and old people who opt to live in high rise condos love to complain nonstop that FEMA didn't come in limos to personally rescue and escort them out of their buildings and they must eat MREs instead of being served more succulent fare, like steak, lobster, shrimp!"
I have indeed noticed a widespread sense of entitlement, here, as Floridians expect someone to take care of them, such as the local police, or the Social Security Administration, or their insurance company, or the National Guard, or George Bush's brother, or--well, someone! This time, however, they may be out of luck.
Emergency generators that sustain hospitals, fire departments, and sewage pumping stations will need more fuel in the very near future. Likewise, emergency vehicles. This brings us to the real sticking point: The broken supply chain. Port Everglades, where giant ocean-going tankers normally unload fuel into equally giant storage tanks, is paralyzed because it, too, lacks electricity. Nor can fuel come in via railroad, because crossing gates and flashing lights are out of action, allowing those who are absent-minded or generally out to lunch (a sizable fraction of the population) to stray upon the tracks without customary warnings from bells, barriers, and beacons. This risk is perceived as being so severe, trains will not run until all the protective systems at every railroad crossing have been brought back online.
Of course the highways are open from the north, but since the power outage is so extensive, I'm thinking that truckers may be unwilling to drive very far into our area in case they will be unable to refuel to get back out again.
As I sit here with my stash of kerosene, batteries, bottled water, and food bars, I am already making contingency plans. First I will park my car close to an obstacle such as a concrete wall, to prevent opportunists from siphoning fuel from the gas tank. Then I may double-bag some reserve stocks of food and bury them in my back yard. This sounds melodramatic, but in a society of deluded whiners waiting for Santa Claus to deliver the supplies which they feel they deserve, a self-sufficient person with a stockpile of resources is not necessarily in a strong position. On the contrary: He becomes a target.
One Week Earlier
The first time I saw hurricane Wilma on the National Weather Service web site, she was making an impromptu visit to Cancun, scouring sand from beaches and punching windows out of high-rise hotels. This of course was just a playful dalliance, a brief rehearsal for the main event.
As I studied Wilma's predicted trajectory I saw that it would bring her across the Gulf of Mexico and over the Florida peninsular from the west to the east, exiting the east coast at a point about 10 miles below Lake Okeechobee--in other words, precisely where I have been living since I accepted a full-time job here, just over a year ago. Forecasters predicted that Wilma would lose some energy along the way, but I didn't believe that. Something about Wilma convinced me that she was going to be aggressive, mean, and nasty.
As the days passed, Wilma's schedule slipped a few hours but my neighborhood remained on the center line of her probable path. On Sunday night, in anticipation of her predicted arrival around 9 AM the next morning, I made final preparations. I refilled my car and my pickup truck at a local gas station, and was surprised to find no one waiting in line. Maybe my neighbors had already topped off their tanks, or--more likely--they weren't taking Wilma as seriously as I was.
I drove back to my house, stepped out into the driveway, and looked up to see a few puffs of cloud drifting lazily across a night sky softly backlit from streetlights below. As palm fronds stirred in a light breeze, it seemed inconceivable that Wilma was at that very moment inflicting random acts of mindless destruction on the opposite coast, 200 miles away.
I walked into the house that I rent, which was built around 1930, entirely from wood, and is located about four feet above sea level, 500 feet from the Intracoastal Waterway. Last year I lived in a modern, hurricane-safe apartment complex; the main reason I moved to my present location was so that my cat could have back yards to roam in. I was beginning to regret that decision.
I started loading possessions into big plastic tubs and sealing the lids with cling-wrap. My friend Mathew, who works with me and also rents a room in the house, started packing up his computer equipment, his stereo, and his oversize inflatable bed. (For reasons which I have never understood, Mathew always sleeps on an inflatable bed. He doesn't own a normal bed.) We loaded everything into the back of my pickup truck and drove to the research lab where we work. I conjectured that this would be a safer location, since it is constructed from concrete. Better still, in keeping with the notorious hyperbole of Florida real estate developers, it is located on "Skyline Drive," so named because it is situated a dozen additional feet above sea level. Mathew set up his bed in an empty office on the ground floor while I hauled my plastic containers to the second floor and placed them beneath some desks, where I thought they should be safe from flooding and somewhat protected if the roof collapsed or was ripped away.
Then I went back to my house and placed my less essential possessions in more plastic tubs, which I stacked on the dining table, again in the hope that this would safeguard them from flood waters. I took my cat, Eddie, back to the lab and test-started our 5500-watt generator, which would be sufficient to power a freezer and two refrigerators. The refrigerators were loaded with cold turkey, orange juice, bread, cheese, and yogurt, in addition to various expensive chemical compounds connected with our lab work.
Mathew shut himself in his office, where he inflated his bed. I camped out on the upper floor with my cat, and plugged in my laptop to recharge it. I figured we were prepared, more or less.
After sleeping fitfully I woke around 7 AM and heard the steel roof creaking gently as air howled around the building. One thing should be understood about hurricanes: They are boring. When you look out of the window, the landscape is a dim, dark gray, and it stays that way for a long time. Trees thrash their branches, rain races past almost horizontally, and nothing else happens for many hours.
Around 8 AM the power went out. Since most of our 8,000-square-feet facility is windowless, I grabbed my flashlight, found my way downstairs, and started the generator in our large warehouse area. In addition to the refrigerators, the generator was hooked up to a powerful extractor fan which I hoped would keep carbon monoxide to a tolerable level. Then I went to the front lobby and sat on the couch (which we maintain for visitors) while I watched the wind blowing across the parking lot. The metal roof made ominous banging and scraping sounds, probably as debris was hurled upon it. My cat stared at the weather without much enthusiasm, and went to sleep.
After a while I stepped outside. The fine rain was driven with such force, my face felt as if it were being sandblasted. I came back inside and suggested to Mathew that we should go for a drive. "Okay," he said, so we got into my pickup truck and cruised into the storm.
We were totally alone. I saw no other vehicles anywhere. Dark clouds were racing low overhead, power lines and phone wires were writhing, branches were being torn loose from trees, and flurries of leaves were piling up like snow drifts. My little S-10 pickup truck rocked in the gusts. I was careful to keep a good distance away from any tall objects that might fall and crush the vehicle like a bug.
After we returned to the office, the wind quietened and the light brightened slightly as the eye of the storm moved over us, around 1 PM. An hour later, as the back side of the hurricane spiral moved in, the wind reversed direction. This was bad news since it was now blasting directly against the large windows of our modern building. When I placed my palm against a window I could feel it flexing in and out at least an inch each way, and the motion was taking its toll on the rubber gasket between the glass and the aluminum frame. Bit by bit, I saw the glass nudging the rubber out of its channel at the top of the window. Finally the rubber came completely free and one entire edge of the glass was unsupported, leaving a quarter-inch gap where the wind came howling in, spewing dirt and dead leaves across our nice new carpet.
Wilma's malevolent intention was now obvious: To get rid of the rubber gasket around the remaining three edges of the window and hurl the entire sheet of glass, measuring about four feet by ten, into the front lobby. I was determined that this should not happen, because if the wind penetrated the building it would wreak havoc, tossing the ceiling tiles up from their aluminum grid, spraying water everywhere, and stirring pens, papers, pencils, and paperclips until everything would look as if it had passed through a blender.
I ran into the workshop at the back and found a cordless hand-held circular saw. I grabbed it, and some lumber, and ran back to the lobby. Already the left gasket was half way out, and the unsupported top corner of the big window was bending inward to a horrifying extent. I had never realized glass could bend so much without breaking. The deflection at the corner was as much as three inches. I hesitated before approaching it--but big ground-floor windows are made from toughened glass that shatters harmlessly into popcorn, right?
I pushed against the window with all my strength, and managed to return it to its frame. Of course, it didn't want to stay there. I wedged a two-by-four between the glass and an opposite wall, and the window flexed and knocked the wood out of place. Meanwhile of course everything was still a monotonous dark gray outside, and the wind was still howling and trees were still thrashing their branches. Leaves, old newspapers, aluminum cans, cardboard boxes, and a detached stop sign went hurtling across the parking lot.
I managed to wedge the wood temporarily, while Mathew watched uneasily from the hallway. "I don't think this is a good idea," he said. Probably he was right, but I had fallen into that dangerously obsessive mental state in which the purpose of a task becomes obscured by the drama of the task itself. I was like Wile E. Coyote in pursuit of the Road Runner.
The glass was now flexing ominously around the point where the wood pressed against it. I ran back to the warehouse, found a good piece of plywood measuring about two feet by eight, and went back to the lobby. Trying to keep calm, I sawed the end of a two-by-four to make it exactly the right length. The saw kept jamming. It had barely enough battery power to complete the cut, and I knew that if I judged it wrong, I wouldn't have a second chance. I forced the plywood against the glass, then pushed the two-by-four between the plywood and the opposite wall. Good; it was a precise fit.
The influx of wind-driven debris was now impeded, but I wasn't sure my two-by-four would remain in place, so I ran back to the warehouse yet again, grabbed a cordless electric screwdriver and some three-inch wood screws, and returned to the lobby, where I screwed the wood to the wall and added some additional triangular braces.
Finally the lobby seemed secure. "You know," Mathew said to me, "my mother used to work in a glass factory. She once told me that they would ship out defective toughened glass along with the good stuff. So, it doesn't always shatter into popcorn."
Maybe he should have told me that earlier. Oh well. I went to check upstairs, and found that the windows there were starting to lose their own rubber seals along their top edges. Still, the wind was slackening slightly, and I judged that the windows were safe for the time being at least, and maybe for the rest of the storm.
The vinyl floor tiles were covered in water. I went downstairs, found a plastic dustpan and a mop bucket, and returned to the upper floor, where I started scooping water into the dustpan and dumping it in the bucket. I probably picked up about six or seven gallons this way (it was a giant, industrial-size mop bucket).
An hour or so later, as the wind diminished further, the water stopped coming in, and I decided to take a break. I was concerned that if I waited too long the local police would want to take control of the streets for the usual dubious reasons--to preserve order, direct traffic, protect us from ourselves, and so forth. If I wanted free access to interesting areas of devastation I should move as quickly as possible. Once again, I set out with Mathew in the pickup truck.
The back side of the hurricane had been far more ferocious than the front side. A massive pile of tree branches now blocked the road, but it was a divided highway, and the other side was clear, so I bumped over the median and proceeded the wrong way for a block till I came to an intersection. The traffic signals had fallen from their suspending cables and were smashed on the asphalt. Wires dangled, snaking lazily to and fro. I detoured around them, although the chance that they might still carry electricity seemed negligible.
I drove toward the ocean, reached Highway 1, and saw an amazing spectacle: Sturdy wooden poles that had supported high-voltage power lines were literally snapped in half. The power lines were now lying in people's front yards. Some residents from a nearby trailer park were standing and staring at the mess. I stopped and took some pictures.
"Hey man," said a skinny black guy who seemed slightly hostile, "what you doing taking pictures? These people just lost their homes."
Indeed, people who live in mobile homes in Florida should expect to lose them during a hurricane. Still, I sensed it might be unwise to express my feelings on this topic. "I just want to document this terrible disaster," I said.
He considered that. "It is terrible," he said. "You got any gasoline in your truck?"
"Only water. Two gallons of water." I took a step backward.
"No gasoline at all, huh?"
"Only water," I repeated. I opened the door of the truck, and we drove away.
I continued north on Highway 1 until I reached the street where I live. I was pleased to find no flooding; evidently the hurricane had passed through so quickly, little rainfall had accumulated. Two large trees in my neighbor's front yard had been thrown down across my front yard, but neither of them had hit my house. Palm fronds were scattered everywhere, and I found miscellaneous debris: Asphalt shingles that seemed to have come all the way from a house at the other end of the block, a detached lightweight aluminum porch that I had never seen before, and (lying near my front door) an under-ripe coconut.
The house itself was amazingly unscathed. The roof showed no sign of damage. No water had penetrated any of the rooms. This really pissed me off; I could have saved myself the trouble of packing and moving my possessions to the lab.
I drove back to the lab with Mathew, and at the rear of the building I saw something that surprised me more than anything else I had seen. A large dumpster, with a capacity of about eight cubic yards, had been thrown onto its side. That, to me, was impressive: A wind strong enough to knock over a dumpster.
In front of the building, the parking lot and the landscaped areas had been swept clean as if a giant leaf blower had come along. Wilma had taken all the loose stuff lying around, such as candy-bar wrappers, twigs, plastic soda bottles, and old newspapers, and had swept the detritus into big neat piles.
While Mathew went out for a longer sight-seeing trip in his own car, I scooped more water from the upstairs floor. When he returned, we ate some of our supplies and reviewed our options. "How much gasoline do we have?" Mathew asked.
"Enough to keep the generator running for several days," I said.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
I went to check, and was stunned to discover that two of our six five-gallon gas cans were empty. How had that happened? I tried to reconstruct the sequence of hurricane preparations, and failed. Maybe our office manager, Kelly, had used the gas in her car--but that seemed vanishingly unlikely. I had to face the fact that somehow, I had screwed up. I had been overconfident because hurricane Ivan, a year ago, had knocked out the power for just one day. Having sampled Wilma's work, I was sure, now, that our current outage would last much longer.
"We're going to have to find more gas," I said.
"Where?" Mathew asked.
"Well, if I drive far enough tomorrow, I should be able to go beyond the hurricane zone and find a functioning gas station."
After some more discussion, we agreed that Mathew would continue living in the office, mainly because if he deflated his inflatable bed, he wouldn't have any power, back at the house, to reinflate it. Also, at the lab, he would have access to our stash of food in the refrigerator. The only snag was that he didn't like the generator being located inside the warehouse area; he was afraid of carbon monoxide seeping into the office areas of the building and killing him in his sleep. All right, I agreed to move the generator outside--but how could we prevent it from being stolen? I remembered my oversize New York City bicycle chain, back at the house, so I drove off to get it.
By this time it was quite dark. All the streetlights were out, of course, and none of the traffic signals was working. Only a few cars were on the street. As I drove across the I-95 overpass, I saw a police cruiser pulling someone over ahead of me--and another, stopping a car on the other side of the street. Then I saw a large electric sign: MANDATORY CURFEW 7:30 - 5:00. When I checked my watch, I was dismayed to find that the time was almost 8:30.
I managed to reach my street without being hassled by the police, and went to one of my neighbors. When he came to the door, I asked him if the curfew was serious.
"It was on the TV news," he said, looking at me as if I was an idiot.
Well, I never watch local TV news, because I think it's stupid and irritating. I don't even own a TV capable of picking up over-the-air broadcasts. I get all my news online or from CNN--under normal circumstances.
"You're sure the curfew is for real?" I asked my neighbor.
"They've been throwing people in jail," he told me.
Evidently I should not attempt to drive back to the office to secure the generator. I paused outside a moment, surveying the neighborhood. Some windows were dimly lit with the faint glow from candles, flashlights, and oil lamps. There was no other source of light. Because of the curfew, no traffic was passing the intersection at the end of the street. No trains were moving down the railroad just beyond. My residential neighborhood was as dark and dead as a one-horse western town.
I retreated into my house, lit my oil lamp, ate a can of beans--and discovered that rainwater had run into the keyboard of my Windows xp laptop, because I had left it unprotected while it was recharging on the upper floor at the lab. Damn! When I switched it on, it beeped incessantly and did nothing. Eventually I managed to get it started by hammering its keyboard with my fist while it went through its boot sequence. Then I plugged in a USB Mac keyboard, which it somehow recognized, although it still didn't respond to the backspace key.
As I made notes--without backspacing--and pondered my situation, I realized I was feeling nonspecifically anxious. Normally I like to think of myself as being self-sufficient. Many times I have been totally alone in the Northern Arizona wilderness, and have enjoyed being disconnected from civilization. Similarly I have always enjoyed reading disaster novels by authors such as J. G. Ballard (The Drowned World) or John Christopher (The Day of the Triffids). I've been seduced by the vision of an isolated survivor wandering through a wasteland. So, what was bothering me now?
The answer was obvious. I was not an isolated survivor. I was surrounded by millions of people who seemed civilized yet possessed the destructive potential that has been endemic in large crowds throughout history. I imagined the entire southern end of Florida sliding into a state of anarchy, like a giant version of the New Orleans Superdome. I didn't think this would happen, necessarily, but I had a visceral sense that it _could_ happen, if Florida was mismanaged as badly as Mississippi--which seemed entirely plausible.
Since I had gone to sleep early, I found myself wide awake at 6 AM. Well, the curfew was over, so I grabbed the chain to secure the generator, and drove over to the lab.
At the rear of the building I found that Mathew had wedged the generator into a corner, using one of our vehicles to pin it against the wall, to prevent theft. This was ingenious but unwise. The generator was in such a tight space, it was now inhaling its own fumes. I went into the facility to tell Mathew that I had to reconfigure his setup. Along the way I found an extension cord from the generator, leading under the door of the office in which he had established his inflatable bed. I heard a fan whirring inside the office, which was unsurprising, because Mathew can never sleep unless he hears the sound of a fan running.
Hm, best not to waken him. I turned around, tripped over the extension cord, and heard the fan come crashing down inside his room.
"Who is it?" I heard him shout through the closed door. "I have a gun!"
Hastily, I identified myself.
"That was very dangerous," he told me a few minutes later, after he unlocked his door.
"It was only dangerous because you were acting like a paranoid wacko," I told him.
"I'm not paranoid. That generator, outside, is like an advertisement telling people we have something to steal."
Perhaps he was right. There was no way of knowing. The whole situation was so freakishly unprecedented, no one could say what was likely, what was far-fetched, what was sane, or what was crazy. Were the cops over-reacting, enforcing a 7:30 curfew? Was Mathew over-reacting, brandishing a handgun? I didn't have enough information or experience to answer these questions.
After I repositioned the generator in a way that allowed it to breathe, Mathew showed me what he had done during the previous evening. He had moved the couch from the entrance lobby into the chem lab, where he had set up a TV and a lamp, wired with more extension cords to the generator. It was like the scene in the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead, where the survivors establish a refuge in an area upstairs from the zombies.
"Details like this make life worth living," Mathew said.
Personally it gave me the creeps, but I had to admit, his attitude was more positive than mine. "So what did you learn from the TV? Has power been restored at Port Everglades?"
"They didn't say anything about that."
I felt myself becoming irritated. "Of course not! They never tell you anything useful. They just show you pictures of annihilated mobile homes and obese losers pissing and moaning about FEMA. It's so terrible, a strong wind ruined their lives, and no one is doing anything about it. What a bunch of ingrates."
"So what are _you_ going to do?" Mathew asked.
"I'll have to do some driving, I guess." I wondered how I could discover the real extent of the area affected by the hurricane. Would the local police know? Would anyone know? Two days ago I had been able to sit down at a keyboard and learn almost any fact about anything, just by clicking icons on a screen. Now I felt as info-deprived as a third-world peasant. I should have bought a short-wave radio, I realized. Still, there was no point in playing the shoulda-coulda-woulda game.
"I'll stay here and do some work around the facility," Mathew said.
"What kind of work?"
"Well, there's a lot of cleaning to do, and things should be put away on shelves--"
He was right, of course: We might as well take advantage of the time in a useful and productive manner. On the other hand I felt as if he was planning to start scrubbing the deck of the Titanic just after it had hit the iceberg.
At 9 AM Kelly, our office manager, arrived with a battery-powered radio. Against my better judgment we listened to a local station. The coverage was abysmal. The anchorman had no news; he urged listeners to call and tell _him_ some news. "If you have a gas station that's up and running in your neighborhood, be sure to let us know!" he said in that hearty, barrel-chested voice shared by news anchors everywhere in America.
The radio did supply phone numbers for local disaster assistance, and for FEMA, and my cell phone was still working, probably because many cell towers are powered by propane-fuelled generators, which I hoped would last for a couple of weeks at least. I called a shelter, and the number was busy. I called FEMA and got through fairly quickly to someone who appeared to be out-of-state. "I want to know which areas of Florida still have electricity," I said.
"We don't have that information," the woman told me, and hung up.
I called directory assistance and asked for the number of any Home Depot in the Orlando area. When I got through to the store, someone told me they had no gas cans, and no generators either. "You'd have to go north of Jacksonville to find any," the man said.
After that, I got the number of a Texaco station in Orlando, and called them. "We only do repairs, we don't sell gas," said the person who answered the phone. "But the convenience store next door has a lot of gas."
Well, that was encouraging. "All right," I said to Kelly, "let's go for a drive."
We emptied the remaining cans into the generator and into the tank of my truck. I used a ratchet strap to secure the cans near the tailgate of the truck, and we started north on Skyline Drive. Local firefighters were out, winching fallen branches off the asphalt, but I didn't see any attempt, yet, at electrical repair.
We passed a house with a sheriff's pickup truck outside. I parked and knocked on the door of the house, and a guy in uniform, looking around 25, opened up. I asked him if we should go north or south in our quest for gas stations which were still supplied with electricity.
"Miami seems to have been hit pretty bad," he said, although he didn't cite a source for this information.
"What about further north?"
"I drove in from the northern county line, at Port Lucie. Everything was dead."
"That's about twenty miles, right? Maybe we have to go further."
He shrugged. "Good luck."
There was a sense of unreality about the whole thing. Aside from some fallen tree branches and piles of debris, nothing looked much different, yet here we were, in one of the most inaccessible locations in America, lacking the two most essential forms of energy, with no clue about how or when they would be restored, and no clear idea of what might happen if they weren't.
We drove to my house and I grabbed some food bars and water. My pickup truck has 185,000 miles on it, and I didn't necessarily trust it to bring us back, even if we did find gasoline. During the years when I lived in the Northern Arizona wilderness I had learned never to set out without a couple gallons of water and some emergency food.
Next I stopped at the local Town Hall. The access road to the police department was partially blocked with fallen branches. Inside the darkened building, a young dispatcher seemed authoritatively sure that Miami was a disaster area. I decided to believe him. We would go north.
By this time a lot of traffic was on the streets. People had no jobs to go to, and they were just cruising around, enjoying themselves. I imagined the conversations inside the cars: "Wow, look what happened to that K-Mart sign! Hey, look at the palm tree that blew over on top of that guy's car! Ha ha, I bet he wishes he hadn't left it there! You think he had insurance?"
We decided to head west to the Florida Turnpike, which has gas stations at intervals along its entire length. I would simply continue driving till we reached a station that was open for business.
Getting to the turnpike, though, was a problem. We found ourselves in a major traffic jam, and I wondered if everyone else was pursuing the same goal as ourselves. I found this hard to believe, because it seemed contrary to the manana mentality which prevails in Florida. The locals were still in a festive mood; they wouldn't start getting seriously worried for at least another day or two.
Sure enough we discovered that the traffic backup had been created by simple human indecision. Where traffic signals were dead, post-hurricane ettiquette dictated that each intersection should be treated as a four-way stop, but Florida drivers have never caught on to the rule about yielding to the person on your right. They were hesitating, waiting for each other to go. This was the entire cause of the problem.
After a while we reached the turnpike, where I was relieved to find that the traffic was very light. We cruised at a steady 75. The sunlight was golden, and the air was uncharacteristically cool and dry. We saw a man in a large mowing machine, trimming grass beside the turnpike. Further along, we saw construction crews doing highway maintenance. Crisis? What crisis? So long as these public employees had diesel in their tanks, they would continue performing their assigned tasks as zealously as the Energizer Bunny. But what would they do when the diesel ran dry? That was the big question.
For many miles we saw trees stripped bare of leaves, and skeletal wooden structures that had supported billboards. All highway signs were damaged, either bent or totally flattened. I remembered seeing bent highway signs a year ago, in the previous hurricane season. Evidently the bent signs had been replaced with new signs that had been no stronger than the old ones. Why was there no learning process, here? Maybe the state actually benefited from the federal aid that it received to replace bent signs on an annual basis.
After about fifty miles, the traffic started to bunch up. There was a turnpike service island a mile or so ahead--and here was the tail end of the line of cars waiting for gas. As traffic slowed to a crawl, I saw a state trooper on the shoulder of the highway. I rolled down my window. "How far do we have to go to find electricity?" I shouted.
The trooper was a woman, sitting on the trunk of her car, sipping iced tea from a big transparent plastic mug. She eyed me with contempt. This was nothing personal; I sensed that she viewed the entire world with contempt.
"This is a gas line, sir," she said. The "sir" was spoken almost sarcastically.
"I understand that. I want to know how far I go to find a town with electricity."
"I can't tell you that." She made it sound like classified information. She looked away, refusing to deal with me any further.
"Protect and serve," I muttered, as we pulled out and went past the line of cars.
The line stretched for about three-quarters of a mile. I imagined waiting in it for most of the day. Would we be allowed to fill all six of our five-gallon cans? I imagined backlash from others who wanted their share. Something about an emergency situation automatically seemed to deactivate the normal consensual principles of commerce. In a market economy, each business may set its prices freely in response to supply and demand--right? But what would happen now, if a gas station followed that principle? Outraged consumers would accuse it of "price gouging." I wondered what that really meant. Maybe the reflex to ration a scarce commodity is part of an evolutionary pattern. When a species feels threatened, it moves instinctively to share resources. Something like that.
"You know, we have to make a decision fairly soon." I told Kelly. "This truck can go maybe 200 miles on a full tank. When we get to 100 miles, we have to decide whether to turn back--or whether to take a chance on finding fuel farther on."
"We turn back," she said firmly.
I wasn't so sure about that, but I said nothing.
After a while, we took an exit--and found two gas stations near the highway open for business. This was encouraging: The power was on, here. Still, the lines of cars were impossibly long.
We continued farther north and took the next exit, signed to Fort Pierce. We were now 75 miles north of our lab in Delray Beach. At this exit I found half-a-dozen gas stations, and more lines of cars, but the lines were shorter. I added myself to a line at a Mobil station, and we waited for fifteen minutes or so. The line moved impossibly slowly, and I realized that even in a situation like this, Floridians were incapable of proceeding with all due haste. Grumpy retirees were squinting at the gas pumps, putting their credit cards in the wrong way around, and getting agitated in cases where a car's filler pipe was on the opposite side to the pump. Some people were taking additional time to go inside, pay cash, come back outside, pump fuel, and then go back inside for their change.
"I can't deal with this," I told Kelly, as I pulled out of the line.
"No, you're crazy!" she said.
I've never had much patience for waiting in lines. Also I felt sure that if we drove farther we'd have a better chance. Sure enough, a couple miles down the road we found a little four-pump gas station on a back street with only half-a-dozen people waiting. After ten minutes we were able to fill all six of our cans.
This created a strong feeling of relief. "Next stop, Wal-Mart," I said. We had passed one on our way to the gas station, and when I went back to it, I found that it was open for business. The bright lights and the noise of cash registers were a breath of life, wiping away the awful deadness that had surrounded us farther south. I'd never realized how much I love electricity.
I bought an inverter, so that I could recharge my defective laptop from the outlet in my truck. I also picked up two loaves of bread and two pounds of cold turkey, since our generator would be sustaining our refrigerators for at least a few more days with the fuel that I had obtained.
We went back to I-95 and headed for home. Every four or five miles we passed cars that had been abandoned on the shoulder, apparently because they had run out of fuel. Each of them had been left at an angle, pointing away from the highway, like fallen arrows.
Back at the lab we found Mathew looking very pleased with himself. "I washed the entire warehouse floor," he said.
"I'm going to take my radio, now," Kelly said. It was almost 5 PM; quitting time.
"Did you get any useful information by listening to the radio?" I asked Mathew.
"Well--" He hesitated. "You know, they have a lot of people calling in who are, let's say, not very smart. Like, there was this lady who was worried because she had heard that she should boil water before drinking it. The man on the radio said, surely she must have some bottled water. She said, yes, she had two weeks' supply of bottled water. But she was worried because she didn't have any way to boil it."
I wondered what it is about the state of Florida that seems to attract people like that.
I drove home, well ahead of the 7:30 curfew. I still didn't quite believe that the cops were throwing people in jail for being out late, but this was a theory that I had little interest in verifying personally. In my dark kitchen I ate another can of beans, some nuts, and some raisins, and then stepped outside into my back yard. Some of my neighbors were running generators, presumably to keep their kids pacified with DVDs and satellite TV. The night was noisy with the droning of small gasoline engines, and I wondered how long that would last. Then I looked up at the sky and saw something I had never seen in Florida before: Bright stars scattered against total blackness. The absence of street lights, in such a vast area of the state, had taken away the soft backlighting that I had seen on the night before Wilma moved in.
I looked to the south, and then to the north. The sky was utterly dark in both directions. If I had been in an airplane above the peninsular, it would have looked as featureless as the ocean around it.
The next morning, at the lab, Mathew told me what he had gleaned from another evening of watching broadcast TV. "A few gas stations around here have opened. They're using generators to power the pumps. But you can only buy $20 worth of gas."
Once again I noted the spontaneous reflex to ration a scarce resource. In this case it almost made sense, since the gas stations were just using up the remaining fuel in their underground tanks, and trying to distribute it as widely as possible. But what about the supply chain? "Anything about Port Everglades?" I asked. This was still the key to the whole situation.
"I don't think so."
I went to refuel our generator. None of our neighbors, in our industrial park, had generators; their businesses were still closed on this third day after the storm.
The generator had consumed more than five gallons of the gas that I had trucked back here from Fort Pierce. I decided to take an empty can and see if I could refill it locally. This would provide an opportunity to assess the mood of my fellow citizens. If their don't-worry-be-happy Florida mindset had begun to go sour, I wanted to know about it.
I was keeping my car in reserve, fully fuelled and ready to make a run north if things turned ugly. Moreover I had moved the car from my home to the lab and had parked it inside our warehouse. Just to be really, _really_ safe, I had placed my Dr. Hook lock on the steering wheel and an additional lock around the brake pedal.
Mathew said he was thinking of painting the warehouse floor, since he had washed it yesterday. This was too much for me to contemplate, so I took my truck in search of fuel.
When I reached Highway 1, near the broken power poles, I found a line of cars parked at the curb, with people sitting in them. Could this possibly be a gas line? The nearest gas station was a mile up the road. I continued driving, and counted the cars as I passed them. By the time I reached the gas station, I had counted 161 cars. This truly boggled my mind. Just suppose, for the sake of argument, that an average Floridian would require 3 minutes to pump and pay for $20 worth of gas (a highly optimistic estimate, in my opinion). If I joined the line, I'd be waiting for six hours. I could drive to Fort Pierce and back, twice, in that amount of time.
But then I realized: The people in this gas line couldn't do what I had done. They had already used so much of their gas, they were now trapped in the disaster area, and--better still--the $20 refuelling limit guaranteed that they would remain here. This knowledge made me happy. If I did decide to make a run north, the highways should be relatively empty.
At the gas station, two police cruisers had blocked all but one entrance, and the cops were standing around with their thumbs tucked in the belts, making sure no one tried to jump the line. Only one pump was serving cars, under the control of an attendant, presumably to enforce the $20 limit. A second attendant was working another pump, supplying people who had walked to the station carrying cans by hand.
I parked my truck up the street, grabbed my own gas can, and walked back, trying to count the number of people who had come there on foot. Around sixty were standing in line, and I noticed them eyeing me carefully as I approached. Already I could see some basic social codes emerging in this new era of scarcity. If you walked briskly, carrying empty cans toward a gas station, while seeming to ignore the line of people waiting, this was a highly provocative act. Conversely, if your body language indicated that your gas cans were full, you would attract meditative, envious stares. As for the cans themselves, they had become as valuable as cigarette packs inside a jail. In fact the whole situation reminded me of a jail, with the cops metering out resources and everyone waiting to do what they were told, before they were locked into their homes by the 7:30 curfew.
Since I live in a small white enclave on the edge of a large low-income neighborhood, most of the people in the line were black. They didn't seem to share any of my somber thoughts, and it occurred to me that many of them had been waiting in lines of one kind or another and following instructions from state and county employees for most of their lives. By contrast the white people in the line were irritable and humorless. A tall man who looked like a stockbroker or a lawyer started timing the gas-dispensing ritual at the station. He figured that people on foot were being served faster than people in cars, but it still took two-and-a-half minutes to complete each sale. I counted gas cans in the line ahead of me, more carefully this time, and found more than 100.
"Attention!" It was a cop shouting through a bullhorn. "This station will close one hour from now. Repeat, one hour before this station closes. Anyone still in line at that time will not be served."
I tried to imagine how this scene would play out. Someone would be the last person to get gas, and the person behind him would find that he had waited two or three hours for nothing. That seemed like a recipe for trouble. Wouldn't it be smarter for the cops to establish an arbitrary break point in the line right now, so that everyone beyond that point could quit wasting their time and go home? Maybe so, but either way, it wasn't my concern, because there was no way I could reach the front of the line within the next hour. I went back to my truck and drove away, back toward the lab.
Along the road I passed another lengthy line of cars, and realized they were waiting for free handouts from a disaster center. A sign outside the center said, ICE AND WATER. Here was another thing to boggle my mind. Only three days into the post-hurricane period, and people were running out of water. Even more mysterious, they were so desperate for ice, they were willing to wait for it for hours on end. What were they going to use it for? Were they trying to preserve hamburger meat and TV dinners, or did they just want cold beer?
I often feel baffled by everyday aspects of life that other people take for granted, but this situation was especially mysterious. Why ice? And why was it being given away for free? The people who were waiting would normally pay for water to be supplied through pipes to their homes. They would own a refrigerator to make ice, and they would pay for electricity to run it. Why should they stop paying now? It didn't make sense to me.
Well, I still had my own gasoline problem to deal with, since our generator was turning out to be such a thirsty beast. I used my cell phone to call some random numbers in the area around Fort Pierce. "I'm sorry to bother you, I live in Delray Beach, and we still don't have much gasoline here. Is there a shortage where you live?"
People sounded wary, and said that the lines of cars had started getting longer outside gas stations, probably because people like me were coming up there to refuel. Still, it wasn't a major problem--yet.
Tomorrow, I would make another trip. I felt stupid for owning only six cans, instead of twelve or maybe twenty. I was self-sufficient compared with many of my neighbors, but by my own standards, I was hopelessly unprepared. Once again I told myself not to get into the shoulda-woulda-coulda game.
On my way back home, I stopped at my closest neighbor's house and told him I would be going on a gas run tomorrow. I asked if there was anything he needed.
"Ice," he said.
I really wanted to know what he would use it for; but somehow I didn't feel it would be polite for me to ask.
I walked out of the house around 8 AM and found that a new line of cars had already formed along the highway at the end of my street, waiting for the gas station to open. I went for a short walk around the block, noticed a newspaper vending machine outside a restaurant, and saw that the paper had today's date on it. Maybe the Palm Beach Post would be more content-rich than local radio and TV.
The front page was full of the usual human-interest stories. No doubt about it, tragic misfortune was a sure-fire way to sell newspapers. Below the fold I found a picture of a man who complained that raw sewage was bubbling up in his back yard. Apparently the emergency generators that powered the sewage pumps were beginning to break down and/or run out of fuel. A county official was quoted as saying, defensively, there was no way they could possibly have enough generators to run all the pumps at once. They were moving the generators around from one pump to the next.
I turned to the inner pages--and finally found something useful. Port Everglades had reopened. Trucks were loading gasoline for delivery to gas stations. Only one snag: Three trucks which Palm Beach County had paid to go for diesel fuel had taken it away to Miami, instead of bringing it back to Palm Beach.
The trucking company denied this. A spokesperson said that the story was bizarre and ridiculous--which seemed right to me, except that Florida is perpetually afflicted by events that seem bizarre and ridiculous. Anyway, the County was vowing to send a police escort with the next three trucks, to make sure they didn't abscond. One way or another, the generators that were running the sewage pumps would be refuelled.
This was reassuring. Now, if electricity could be restored to the gas stations--and perhaps some grocery stores, banks, and ATMs--the worst would be over.
I checked another news story, in which a spokesperson from Florida Power and Light predicted a reconnection time ranging from one to four weeks. I wondered again about my neighbors' stocks of food. Could they last for another week or two? It still seemed an open question.
I dumped the newspaper and drove over to the lab, where Mathew said he wanted to join me, this time, in my quest for fuel. He had already bagged his dirty laundry in case we had time to visit a working laundromat.
"Can't you just wear dirty clothes?" I asked him.
"Clean clothes are the kind of thing that makes life worth living," he said.
"And why are we stacking ice chests on the truck?"
"I plan to bring back a lot of perishable food. Hamburger meat, for instance."
I didn't understand why he couldn't eat canned beans, nuts, raisins, and food bars for the indefinite future, perhaps with a few vitamin pills to prevent scurvy. It certainly wouldn't bother me. What _would_ bother me was the prospect of sitting in the truck, waiting for him to go shopping. Still, in an emergency, we have to be tolerant of each person's quirks. Or at least, we have to pretend to be tolerant.
Before we left I toured the facility. I noticed that more extension cords had proliferated during the night. "You do realize, the more power you draw, the more fuel we use," I said.
"Well, sure, but bright lights--"
"--Are the kind of thing that make life worth living. Okay, but what's this?" I followed an extension cord into the utility room that contained our large electric water heater. Stuffed between the heater and the wall I found six heating pads, of the type you might use to ease a muscle pain. "You know," I said, as I dragged out the heating pads, "I don't think this is going to make the water hot."
"It could warm it slightly," Mathew said.
"Have you noticed any warming trend?"
"Well, not yet."
Trying to be tactful about it, I disconnected the heating pads. We emptied our remaining gas cans into the generator, Mathew's car, and my pickup truck. As we backed the truck out into the parking lot, I was amazed to see a UPS van stopping outside.
I stopped and signed for a package from the driver. "You guys have your own stash of fuel, I suppose," I said to him.
"Not for much longer," he said, without smiling.
I realized something that had never been clear to me from all the disaster novels I had read. When society starts to fall apart, there's a lag time. During that period of latency, before the disaster bites hard, natural human inertia causes most patterns to persist unchanged. Just like the crews trimming grass and doing highway repairs along the turnpike, the UPS driver was going to continue his routines so long as he had enough fuel to do so. I recalled that even in New Orleans, a whole week had passed before things started getting dangerous.
We cruised north, through the same hurricane-ravaged landscape that I remembered from two days ago. This time when we exited at Fort Pierce, the gas lines were much longer. We continued another ten miles, to Vero Beach. Human habitation here was relatively sparse along the coast, and of course development is prohibited inland, to preserve the wetlands in the Everglades. I wasn't sure how many gas stations I would find.
As it turned out, a cluster beside the Interstate at the Vero Beach exit were open for business. I pulled into line outside a truck stop and asked Mathew to check what was happening by the pumps. He came back with the news that a $140 limit was being enforced. Why $140? What sort of arbitrary number was that? Well, it didn't matter; we could fill all six cans for about $100 at everyday prices, and prices still were at an everyday level, to avoid the deadly accusation of "gouging."
What sort of a world is it, I wondered, where swamps are renamed as "wetlands" to make them more socially acceptable, yet the honorable economic practice of seeking to maximize a profit is renamed "gouging," so that it sounds like a despicable act of personal violence? Who is in control of these language mutations, anyway? Special-interest groups in conjunction with the media, no doubt. As a former journalist myself, I am well aware that journalism really is primarily written by knee-jerk Democrats--and not especially smart ones, at that. Of course it would be even less tolerable if it were written by knee-jerk Republicans, but that's a separate issue.
Our wait for gas lasted far longer than I could have believed possible, because we had unwittingly chosen perhaps the last gas station in America with pumps that didn't accept credit cards. When we reached the front of the line I had to go inside and wait in the convenience store behind people buying candy, cigarettes, beer, and sodas. A large bearded man who looked like a Vietnam vet was behind the counter, taking his time. "I dunno why they say there's a gas shortage. Ain't no gas shortage here," he said. Meanwhile a very fat black woman was working beside him, restocking a display of Marlboros, one pack at a time.
I gave him my credit card and asked for $100 of regular unleaded. He took my card and kept it beside his register. Five minutes later, all our cans were filled, and I had to go back inside the store and wait all over again, to sign the credit card charge slip. The large woman behind the counter was now chatting in a cheerful, mindless way with a man buying a 20-ounce bottle of Sprite for $1.15. I was able to remember these details, because I had so much time in which to observe them.
When the formalities were over I was more than ready to head for home. I had to get back before the curfew, and I had to feed my cat. I was concerned that heavy traffic could slow us down, or my aging truck could malfunction, leaving us stranded. Mathew, however, seemed totally carefree. "Let's get a hot meal," he said.
We ate a bad lunch in an Appleby's where a local woman at the next table described her own power outage the previous year, when Vero Beach had been hit by one hurricane or another. She said she had been without power for four weeks and without water for two months. Still, she continued to live here. I wondered what it would take to get her to move. A year without power? A tsunami? A total embargo on federal disaster aid?
After lunch, Mathew seemed in much better spirits, while I of course was feeling much worse, since I despise the ritual of wasting time in a bad restaurant. Only one thing is worse, and that, of course, is wasting time shopping.
Wearily, I drove to Sam's Club. I parked under a tree in the far corner of the lot, while Mathew went and did what he had to do. I lay down on the asphalt with my head on the curb, and tried to zone out. I told myself not to think about the truck breaking down or my cat being locked out of the house and possibly starving to death. Everything would be all right. Yet the social dislocation had undermined my usual equilibrium. I was still questioning everything, because I was still in a situation without precedents. I felt the presence of millions of people as potential adversaries or competitors for resources.
Finally my cell phone rang, and Mathew said he was outside the store, waiting for me to pick him up. When I got there I found him with a barbecue grill and a propane tank, "For my hamburger meat," he explained, as he dumped four pounds of dead cow into one of the ice chests, along with copious quantities of ice. Glumly, I tied the propane tank onto the bed of my pickup truck with a nylon ratchet strap. Propane and gasoline: What a great combination! I reflected that I should drive as fast as possible on the way home, to reduce the risk of someone rear-ending us and consuming us in a fireball. On the other hand, fast driving would increase the risk of a tire blowing out, since we were now carrying a lot more than the truck's rated capacity.
Mathew added a new TV (supposedly, smaller and less of a power drain than the one already at the office), many bags of junk food, and a lot more stuff that I don't even remember. I kept thinking about Dawn of the Dead, one of my all-time favorite movies, and the acquisitive impulses of the refugees in the shopping mall. Maybe, I thought, buying things is a kind of survival reflex.
Finally we headed for home. As the sun set on this fourth day after the hurricane, I looked ahead to my darkened home without much enthusiasm. "I wish I could get the hell out of here," I remarked to Mathew.
"Why don't you?" he said. "I don't mind taking care of the lab, now that I have the stuff I need."
I thought about that. "Is my impatience bothering you?"
"I think you should take a good long break," he said, sounding as if he was trying to be tactful.
We made it back to the lab without any truck problems, and unloaded all his goodies. I drove home and decided to take Mathew's advice. I called a couple of airlines, and was able to book a flight out of Palm Beach International, a folsky little airport with absurd delusions of importance. Still, Air Tran would allow me to bring my cat without having to get a health certificate--which was fortunate, since all the veterinary offices would still be closed. The repair crews had restored electricity to many railroad crossings, but almost all homes and businesses were still without power.
Now that I knew I would be escaping from South Florida, I indulged myself by turning up the wick of my oil lamp. No longer did I have to meter my supply of kerosene.
I drove to the airport, where the long-term parking lot turned out to be closed, for no apparent reason. Perhaps the machines issuing time-stamped tickets were still not working. With great difficulty I followed cryptic signs to a remote area which was being used for parking. Here I found other people who seemed just as eager to get the hell out of Florida as I was.
Three hours later, I was walking off the plane and into Terminal 3 at Newark. I found myself transplanted abruptly into one of the largest concentrations of people in the world. Florida barely seemed to exist anymore. The New York-New Jersey metropolitan area was humming with activity, embedded in its immensely complex network of supply lines and communications links, all enabled by the miraculous cooperative enterprise known as commerce.
The system looked robust to me, because a natural disaster is vanishingly unlikely in this part of the world. Still, I had lost some of my confidence. I saw more vividly, now, that any concentration of human beings is just one week away from social breakdown if vital resources are totally withdrawn and help does not arrive. In retrospect, I believe such a breakdown almost happened in some areas of South Florida. I have always understood this type of danger intellectually, but now I felt it viscerally. The learning process had not been pleasant, but the education was valuable.
I stayed in New York for three days before returning to Florida. Power was restored to my home nine days after the hurricane, and to our research lab two days after that. Our DSL, of course, required electricity in addition to a phone line, but once the power was back, our Internet access restored itself. We shut down our 5500-watt generator, which had run for almost two weeks without interruption. The incessant hammering noise of its poorly silenced engine had been driving us mad, but the generator did its job. None of our refrigerated supplies was lost.
Three weeks after Wilma, some of the traffic signals are still dead. Broken power poles have been tilted back upright with makeshift splints that look as if a child had engineered them, but one way or another, almost everyone's electricity has been reconnected.
A phone repair man came to the house today, to restore a line that had been blown down. I chatted with him for a while, and asked how Bell South could possibly pay for the repair of all the damage. Would the rates go up?
"No, we're not allowed to raise rates," he said. "The FCC won't let us."
"So, who pays?"
He shrugged. "The company pays."
Of course this explanation was hopelessly incomplete. If a company can't increase its local rates to repair damage in a high-risk location, presumably it must petition the FCC to raise all rates equally. This means that those who have endangered themselves by their decision to live in a hazardous area will be subsidized by others. The prudent will pay for the imprudent, whether they like it or not. By this logic, if I wanted to live on the Moon, I should expect my fellow citizens to pay for my supply of oxygen.
I don't want to hammer this topic to the point of tedium, but the absence of economic sense is incomprehensible to me. Our entire system depends on capitalist economics, yet when people experience the slightest breath of misfortune, they clamor to be excepted from capitalism. Worse still, every journalist and legislator participates in this charade. No one dares to suggest that individuals should pay their own way.
I see only one possible answer to the Florida entitlement syndrome. Sooner or later we may expect rising ocean temperatures to initiate something a little more extreme than Wilma. I'm imagining a category 5 hurricane that comes up from Cuba, gaining momentum as it crosses the Keys and starts eating into the culturally unevolved eyesore known as Miami. From here it proceeds directly north, along a line exactly parallel with the coast, cutting a swathe like a giant Weed-Eater. All the boring, overpriced, tile-roofed, beige-walled suburban enclaves will be dismantled and dumped into their adjacent ornamental lakes. Pastel-pink and aquamarine condos will topple into the sea. Yachts and cabin cruisers, Cadillac Escalades and Lincoln Navigators, Hawaiian shirts and funny sunglasses, ugly gold jewelry and fake antique furniture, coach lamps and mailboxes shaped like dolphins, tanning salons and poodle trimming parlors, low-rent trailer homes and pretentious mansions with Corinthian pillars and porticos--everything will be sliced, diced, stirred and flattened, reduced to undifferentiated trash.
By the time the storm exits somewhere around Disney World, it will have obliterated the entire eastern coastal strip of South Florida. In its aftermath, a few plaintive, childlike voices will be heard crying "FEMA! FEMA!" before they subside into blessed stillness. The stupidest place in the North American continent will thus be swept clean and returned to the custody of waterfowl, mosquitoes, and alligators. I have no special affection for Florida wild life, but one thing can be said in favor of the indigenous species: They never asked anyone for a handout.
It's a seductive dream--to me, anyway. While I'm waiting to see if it happens, I'm going out to buy some extra gas cans and a short-wave radio. Archives