Miami, the great world city, is drowning while the powers that be look away
[I was asked by several people for my memories of Hurricane Andrew’s assault on South Florida. I don’t have anything to add to this post from August 2011.]
I was living with my wife in a Plantation apartment when Hurricane Andrew struck. I believe it was Marie’s first hurricane, and while I had been through several tropical storms during my twenty-two years in South Florida, it might as well have been my first, too.
This comes to mind because I recently discovered a small group of torn-loose steno pages in a dusty manila folder. The day prior to projected landfall I had started scribbling down some notes for some reason. Since this was years before the founding of Hidden City, I can only assume it was for possible use in my ‘zine of the time, Ambergris From Leviathan, but in truth I have no idea. Maybe I was writing myself past the fear. I do that.
It’s a bit premature, I know, but for your possible amusement I’ve transcribed the notes as is. Again, these are from August 23 and 24, 1992.
I guess I should start this before things get too weird.
I first heard about the hurricane on Friday, I guess, on national news (NPR). I didn’t pay much attention to it, because it had been a hellish week at work, and I was too brain-dead to notice much. On Saturday Tucker made a joke about it, and Tanya took Marie “hurricane shopping” with her.
When I got up this morning, there was news on the TV about it heading dead for us, with no chance of petering out. I went to the office to shut down the computers and phones. On the way to the ATM to get cash, I gave a ride to an elderly man I saw walking along.
His name was Sam, and he was heading to church. He had lived through several hurricanes himself, but seemed cautiously confident.
We decided to go to my parents’ house, and dismantled our apartment. I took all our photos and financial records and put them in boxes, along with all my diskettes and copies of AFL. We called the insurance company, and we are covered for $20,700. Marie said she had the REM song “It’s the End of the World, as We Know it” playing in her head.
Custer [our cat] has not taken well to the new quarters. My mother has three cats here (all bullies), plus she has taken in two neighborhood cats. As soon as Custer got out of the carrier, she rqan under a cabinet, and refuses to come out. I am very worried about her.
I have been (predictably) thinking about my mortality today. I have done a lot of evil things in my life, which I won’t ever atone for. The last few years I have tried to be a better person, as much as I can be. But maybe this is the end? I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.
The scariest thing about this hurricane is that for all the preparations my father and I have made, we could still be killed by the roof coming off the house. Nothing we can do about it, and it isn’t likely. There are also some windows int he house — facing a well-protected entranceway — which do not have shutters. We could lose one of those window, and get some very scary results. But it should be okay.
I have also had a lot of thoughts for friends in dangerous areas. Millie and Al live in the first evacuation area, but when I called at 10am, I got their machine. I hope they are okay. Also my friend Otto, and Bebbie and Ronnie, who just moved to Kendall.
The saving grace of having to watch all the TV coverage has been Brian Norcross, Channel 4 weatherman. He has taken a no-bullshit attitude, calling people who won’t evacuate “plain stupid.”
It is strange being in my parents’ house. I took a shower in my old bathroom, and we’ll be sleeping in my old room. No hurricane party here, though. We have things to drink, and I brought a bottle of Courvoisier from the apartment (for medicinal purposes, of course), and ‘Rie brought Wild Turkey.
5:00 AM: Woke up when A/C went off. Still just like a real bad thunderstorm. We have finally gotten Custer to come out — okay, she came out on her own, and we left her alone until she had calmed down some — and into my old bedroom. Marie & I slept for a while, but once it really kicked in, I wanted to get up and write this. Bryan Norcross and Channel 4 miraculously stayed on the air, radio and TV both. The National Hurricane Center was hit by a gust of wind at 164 mph, and their radar unit was wiped out completely.
6:40 AM: We should be getting the worst of it in the next couple of hours. Custer is terrified, mewing and panting. (It is starting to get hot and stuffy.) The odd thin is that we discovered that she is afraid of the dark. While the light is on she is scared but okay. When I turn it off, though, she immediately starts to cry.
I made an error earlier. I convinced Custer to come into the bedroom with us, which would have been okay save for one thing: the room faces the entranceway, and has a wall of unprotected windows. I don’t want to risk her staying in that room and sitting on the wondowsill, so I took out her litter box, bowl, and water, and put them in the hall right outside the door. She seems to be doing better now, though.
6:55 AM: The sun is theoretically coming up. It is getting a little lighter outside, and has the gray-violet look of a severe storm. The winds come and go.
Brian is still going. The reports are interesting — rumors of disasters, reporters trapped in cars, talking on cellular phones. Now they say we might get off relatively easy. We shall see.
7:18 AM: Went outside with my father. His carambola tree was wiped out by the neighbors’ black olive, which was overgrown and lost its top. On this street there are a few dead trees strewn about, but it doesn’t look too bad. Then again, it isn’t over yet.
The notes abruptly end. Of course the storm turned south, leaving Plantation and Fort Lauderdale relatively unharmed while devastating southern Dade County. Our apartment suffered a bit of water damage due to a leaky roof, but was otherwise unscathed. I can’t say the same for many other friends.
This is probably why I never continued. In my life I observe the events around me, both to keep myself fully in the moment and then to lock down details in case it should prove a good topic for an essay. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work out that way, because it just wasn’t that interesting, or I can’t find a handle on the story, or, sometimes, because my observations seem so small, so petty, in the enormity of the total event.
Nineteen years later I remember the building fear all too well. But I also remember the relief when we were spared the brunt of the storm, and the tremendous guilt I felt over that relief when the extent of the impact became known. Since Andrew I have taken storms seriously, very seriously. Right now my pantry has a good stock of canned tuna and saltines, and I know my evacuation plans and routes by heart.
I also spent a lot of time with my ex-employer’s emergency operations center, working on business continuity plans and disaster preparedness. Sure, a lot of that focus was on helping the company survive a disaster, but even when management’s focus was elsewhere, I devoted my energy to doing what I could to provide systems and services to help the afflicted employees and their families, when a storm struck. It was the right thing to do, of course, but it also helped me atone in a small way for my relief at avoiding Andrew’s wrath.
Moving from South Florida to the DC/Maryland/Virginia area involves a bit of culture shock. Following are a few of the areas where I’ve had to adjust. These are just my initial impressions, so salt them as heavily as you’d like.
- When you break it down, nothing is straightforward here, least of all the roads. Everything curves and twists, moving through odd arcs and angles: up, down, left, right, and every variation between.
- There isn’t any street grid (except in DC itself). Particularly in Maryland, the streets curve back on themselves with reckless abandon. I can’t prove it, but I am fairly certain I went through an intersection where a road crossed itself.
- This twisty pattern is further complicated by these things called “hills.” I would try to explain it for the education of native Miamians, but I suspect their brains won’t be able to grasp the concept of higher elevation without being in a condominium. Everything is above sea level. I think the sea is above sea level.
- The cities are spread out across land, rather than running from one right into the next. Paradoxically, you can drive through several states in the time it would take to get from South beach to Boca Raton. Since moving here I’ve been to Maryland, DC, Virginia, and West Virginia, and I’ve been a comparative homebody.
- Bear in mind that I’ve only been here through the end of summer, fall, and the start of winter, I’m sure this will change.
- One of the first things I noticed is how green the land is. As weird as it sounds, there is more access to nature here than in all of South Florida. It brings home what my British friend said on her visit last year: Miami smells like concrete. There nature is something you use to sell condos; here, nature is built into the culture.
- Seasons aren’t defined by the arrival of northern tourists. You can see the passage of time all around you.
- The sun sets at 3:30pm and doesn’t rise until around 10am, but I hear that varies by time of year. Again, it isn’t always the same! How do they cope with all this change?
- The humidity ranges from “Did I fall in a creek and not notice?” to “Hang on, I need to patch the cracks in my face.” This can be disconcerting.
- This leads to something I had only heard about on television commercials: static cling so severe that two pairs of slacks and three polo shirts can be removed from the dryer with two fingers.
- There are corner bodegas older than Miami. History is respected and honored, not paved over for a new mall.
Food & Culture
- Many people are multilingual, although relatively few speak Spanish only. With the extremely large Ethiopian community, you’d think I’d hear plenty of Amharic, but they all speak English, too.
- “Spanish” isn’t a synonym for “Cuban” here, even among ignorant Anglos. In fact, Cuba is generally seen as just another Caribbean nation, not the center of the universe. Interestingly, from this direction, Canada is located between DC and Havana.
- I haven’t found a place to get a cafecito or some masas de puerco yet, but delicious pho and wat are everywhere. In fact, by comparison, Miami’s culinary options are positively provincial.
- Being an intellectual isn’t automatic grounds for mockery, perhaps because intellectuals are in the majority (in spite of the presence of Congress).
- There’s a baseball team which is actually admired by the locals, perhaps because it doesn’t sell off its best players every year. I can’t tell you if they are any good, but how well they are playing doesn’t affect the amount of support they get, unlike Miami, which only supports teams when they are winning.
- People wear clothes in public, even when they are going out to clubs. I wondered why the women looked odd to me, but then I realized I hadn’t seen a bare midriff since I arrived.
- Did you know breast implants come in cup sizes smaller than DD? I’ve seen occasional ads for plastic surgeons, so I’m sure someone’s buying them, but I have yet to see a woman displaying a prow ready to be christened with a bottle of champagne. As opposed to, well, basically all of Miami.
- Just as in Miami, many people take themselves far too seriously. However, instead of arrogance based on cosmetic surgery and national origin, locals get snooty over job titles and living in the right neighborhood.
The single biggest difference between the areas, though, is their attitudes toward change. Miami is a young region — America’s obnoxious teenage daughter with her daddy’s Platinum AmEx — and still doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. Most of its energy is focused on the ephemeral and superficial, and it turns up its nose at the past the way a kid rolls her eyes at her parents. But it is filled with creative potential, and once it stops staring into the mirror it will be a creative powerhouse.
Conversely, DC is a moderately successful middle-aged white guy who thinks he has it all figured out, as long as no one changes things around on him. There’s a reverence for the past, but it’s so comfortable with the status quo it has developed an unfortunate tendency to resist change. Regardless of what you might hear, Washington is extremely conservative: even the liberals are skeptical of anything too radical. However, it’s adult enough to recognize the value in progress. And when it takes off its Brooks Brothers suit for a while it knows how to shake things up. Remember, 1980s Washington was the birthplace of the hardcore punk movement.
In the end, though, maybe it’s the weather. In DC seasons change, leaves fall all around us, constant reminders of the inexorable passage of time. In Miami, nothing really changes, so tomorrow never comes; it’s always summer vacation.
Miami is not my favorite place in the world.
This should not come as a surprise to long-time readers of Hidden City, and cannot possibly be surprising to those who know me personally. My tendency to sweat any time the temperature rises above 70° F is legendary, as are my complaints about it. At one time I even considered using the tagline, “Bitching about the Miami heat for over forty years,” but realized that people might get the idea I care about basketball.
A reasonable person might ask why I haven’t moved away, if I hate it so much. In fact, a good number of reasonable people — and a few unreasonable people — have done just that. The answer, though, is a bit complicated.
(I doubt that comes as a surprise to anyone, either.)
If you live in South Florida long enough you begin to take its good qualities for granted: the natural beauty of the Everglades and the beaches, the opportunities for exposure to a wide variety of cultures, the warm winters, the… um…. Well, like I said, you start to take them for granted. Human nature, however, ensures that we never get used to the problems we face: snarled traffic, corrupt government, over-focus on tourism, transient citizens, susceptibility to natural disasters…. That list I could keep running for pages.
All too often we think of these problems as being unique to this area, that the ubiquitous sunshine have baked reason right out of our skulls. “There’s no place quite like Miami!” crows the tourism department; “There’s no place quite like Miami,” sighs the citizenry.
Of course, that’s not really true. There are dozens of cities around the world inhabiting and (sometimes) thriving in the subtropical zone. In addition to South Florida — most of Florida, really — there’s also New Orleans, São Paulo, Tijuana, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Taipei, Athens, Rome, New Delhi, Baghdad, Hanoi, Israel, Brisbane, and more than I can count. As diverse as those locations may be, they share certain characteristics; it is logical that lessons learned in one place would apply to others.
This week Fort Lauderdale will host Subtropical Cities 2011, an international conference in which experts in a wide variety of fields, including urban design, tropical architecture, city planning, structural engineering, ecological design, natural resources, sociology, cultural identity, and many more. The speakers at the four-day conference will share what they’ve learned about building (and rebuilding), planning, and living in sub-tropical cities, at FAU’s downtown Fort Lauderdale campus.
This, the third biannual conference, is co-hosted by Florida Atlantic University and the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. In the words of the press kit: “The conference will discuss the future of subtropical cities around the world as experts exchange world-changing ideas and advancements, along with best practices, to support responsible growth and environmentally sustainable subtropical design. Key themes include: subtropical cities in the urban age, sustainable practices and decision making for resilient cities and adaptation to climate.”
Having lived in South Florida for nearly forty-one years, the topics fascinate me. (The full program schedule is available here.) I will admit to a certain skepticism about the practicalities of civilized urban life in this area, given its entrenched philosophy of “Grab what you can and let the next guy deal with the mess.” Nonetheless, I retain a flicker of optimism for the region, and if nothing else, would like to learn how we could fix things, even if local leaders will never have the stomach for real change. So I will indulge my masochistic desire to expose myself to information far out-stripping my formal education, and attend the conference.*
If you work in any of the primary fields — architecture, urban planning, et cetera — it looks like a great way to get a better handle on what South Florida really needs to realize its potential. Here’s the registration form for Sub-tropical Cities 2011. If you have a layman’s interest in the topics, I’ll be reporting on the conference here, as long as my beleaguered brain holds up.
However, anyone with an interest in the subject matter should consider attending the special Friday “Legacy” session, which is free and open to the public. In conjunction with Fort Lauderdale’s 100th anniversary, there will be a special roundtable workshop discussion the issues facing the city, and how to plan for its next century. It should provide an interesting look at Miami’s rival to the north, and — in keeping with the theme of Sub-Tropical Cities 2011 — many of the lessons should also apply to Miami.
When I went to bed on New Year’s Eve I was afraid 2011 would be a repeat of 2004, when I was sick and couldn’t get out of bed in time to watch the sun come up over the Atlantic . An allergy or some such thing decided New Year’s Eve would be an appropriate time to strike, rendering my celebrations rather low-key. Well, they were going to be low-key, anyway, but it’s the thought.
It seems that this ritual has sunken roots deep in my psyche, as I actually woke before the first of my multiple alarms sounded. After a quick pot of coffee I gathered up camera, tripod, and notebook and headed across the bay to Sunny Isles.
The beach was even less populated than in past years. Save for the seagulls and sandpipers there was only the sand-sifter driver. Well, I call them sand-sifters, anyway: the trucks that move along the beach in the early morning, tilling the sand and smoothing it out, burying the cigarette butts and scooping up the beer bottles of the night before.
While it was relatively warm, particularly when compared to my recent “preview” visit, it was very windy, windy enough to knock an unattended tripod right over. There was a fine salt mist in the air, too diffuse to feel wet, but which played hell with my camera lens.
Shortly after the sunrise I noticed a solitary fellow walking along the beach closer to the tree line. I marveled at how much he reminded me of an old friend who had joined me at one of my first New Year’s Day visits; miraculously, it was the same fellow. Nicholas Fitzgerald Kidd, once a frequent blogger and commenter in the South Florida world under the name NicFitKid, was visiting family in the area, and thought that perhaps I’d have continued the tradition. Once the sun had fully risen we headed over to Denny’s to catch up on life, and to mock Florida’s sad, sad political apparatus.
In spite of a somewhat inauspicious start to the year, it was a good morning of friends and traditions. Unfortunately, my allergy wasn’t banished by an early morning at the shore, just pushed back a bit, and it’s now returned in full force. Still, I made it, and sometimes showing up is good enough.
This tradition seems to be spreading. Rick and Ines of Miamism.com went to watch the sunrise a little farther south, and are already talking about doing it again next year. Also, when I posted my short sunrise video to YouTube I noticed that there are many, many other such New Year’s Day sunrise photos from around the world. Perhaps at New Year’s Sunrise 2012 there will be a group of us sharing the experience. It would be nice.
A couple of weeks ago I went out to see the invasion: a mob of zombies assembling to meander around the stores and restaurants on South Beach’s Lincoln Road. According to their Facebook page over 1600 people had confirmed their attendance; given that on-line RSVPs have about a 10% follow-through rate, that could still mean a couple of hundred blood-spattered undead mingling with the beautiful people and the tourists.
It started slowly. I arrived at the designated starting place (near one of the several Starbucks) about thirty minutes before the scheduled start. There were no rotting corpses in sight, although to be fair, there was quite a bit of flesh that had clearly been preserved beyond its natural life through the wonders of chemistry.
As my companion was hungry, we decided to grab a bite to eat at Carnevale (I recommend the gnocci), giving us a good view of the traffic. My companion, I should point out, was not interested in brains, although she has probably eaten them on occasion.
The first trio of teen zombies appeared right on time, at 8:30 on the dot, indicating that they were among the Broward County dead, as no one in Miami ever shows up on time. After that, nothing for at least thirty minutes.
There were several moments when I was certain I had seen more zombies: unhealthily thin, sallow complexions, disheveled clothing. No, just the usual Saturday night South Beach crowd. They’ll fool you every time.
Then there was a commotion from behind us, and the sounds of chanting. The horde had arrived. They were hungry, and I didn’t think gnocci was going to cut it.
After eating I followed them around a bit. Frankly, zombies lose their enthusiasm pretty easily, and are as simple to distract as pre-teens full of Hallowe’en candy.
Sadly, my camera’s battery died before I could capture the evening’s final zombies standing outside a store window, staring motionless and slack-jawed at its contents. A butcher shop, a delicatessen, perhaps?
No. The Apple Store.
Strangely enough, the photo below was taken on the beach shortly before dawn on New Year’s Day. I didn’t retouch it at all, just resized it for posting.
Of all the photos I took that morning—and I took a lot of photos, let me tell you—this remains my favorite. It isn’t a classic sunrise image, and some people have found it a little unsettling, but the streak of orange fire cutting through has a passion that speaks to me, like an unguarded glimpse of hidden strength.
In what I am trying to make a Hidden City tradition, I went to Haulover Beach this morning to watch the sun rise on a new year. Unlike the last time, there were several people scattered along the shore, most huddled in the lifeguard stations to try and escape the brisk ocean breeze. There weren’t so many, though, as to erode the feeling of relaxed solitude the morning brings.
I spent a little time scanning the high tide line, viewing the varying components as though I was reading the ocean’s entrails, divining the future. There was surprisingly little man-made debris—some twine, a solitary beer bottle—but more unusual natural forms. There were quite a few Portuguese man-o-wars, their pale blue balloons starting to show signs of shriveling; many pieces of sponge were washed up, as well, different sizes, shapes, and colors, mixed with the ubiquitous brown seaweed. What does it mean? Unfortunately, my oracular skills are somewhat lacking. We’ll all find out together.
More photos to come later.