South Florida, August 1992, Hurricane Andrew Day 4
Dade County, especially south of Miami, was a scene of devastation, chaos, and social unrest that rivaled the Los Angeles riots of earlier that year. In Broward County, just to the north, where I lived in Fort Lauderdale, the situation was much better. Many major streets and intersections remained blocked, fires burned with no attention paid, the electricity was out....but most of us cautiously returned to the lush downtown area to find our homes only slightly battered.
My company, with a dozen or so locations across South Florida, had just relocated me to our farthest north unit, way up in Palm Beach County, in West Palm Beach. But I had settled our little family in Fort Lauderdale in order to be in the middle of our coverage area, because transfers were so common, and my new one hour commute up to West Palm Beach only mirrored the one I'd been making to South Miami for the previous year or so.
West Palm Beach was untouched by Hurricane Andrew and even though all of our operations to the south were either totally destroyed or closed due to lack of electricity, my orders were for business as usual. So on Day 4, I fearfully weaved my car through the debris-cluttered streets and useless signal lights, until I got up on I-95. From there to West Palm Beach, my side of the highway was almost empty. Southbound was heavy with returning evacuees.
When I got to the mall where my company was an anchor tenant, there were scarcely a dozen cars in the massive lot. Inside, I found a ghost town of barely staffed stores and restaurants, and the usual few dozen seniors who arrived daily to gab and soak up the air conditioning. By 5pm, we'd hardly had a handful of customers and I decided to close early. I had sent the staff home and begun locking up when Luis, the mall maintenance guy knocked on my office door.
"Joe, you live in Lauderdale right?"
"I was wondering if you'd wanna help me take some ice down there tonight. My church has some people setting up a relief operation in a parking lot and I need some help loading up my truck. You can have some ice for...um....your people too."
My people. I almost laughed at his discomfort, even though I understood what he meant. And ice was exactly was most people were desperate for. A cold drink, after 4 murderously hot and humid days of sweltering in your home, was a fantasy come true.
"Well, now that you mention it, I'm sure my neighbors would love some ice after four days of this heat! And maybe I could take some over to Broward General by my house. How much ice is there?"
Broward General had an AIDS ward, where I usually had a least one friend at any given time.
"All we want, but we have to go get it."
As it turned out, every ice machine in every restaurant in the mall was bursting with ice, since there'd been no real business for several days. We scavenged two dozen large plastic tubs and a shovel and after an hour of backbreaking lifting and sweating, we'd loaded the bed of Luis' truck, and the trunk and backseat of my car.
I agreed to follow Luis to his church's operation and help unload most of the ice, then he was going to come with me to Broward General with the rest. The tubs on my backseat were for the folks on my street. I followed Luis onto I-95 and we joined the southern flow. At first, I was sure the ice would long be melted before we got anywhere, but somehow the traffic cleared and soon we were doing about 80.
On Sunrise Blvd, I followed Luis when he exited west and pulled into a strip mall at the end of the off-ramp. There was a ragtag group of trucks and cars, and I could see some folks had dropped off piles of unwanted clothing and some other items. There were a few pallets of bottled water and some diapers on a folding table, but otherwise there didn't seem to be much organization to whatever was going on in that parking lot. Mostly, it was a bunch of people milling around or sitting on curbs.
Luis swung his truck alongside a panel truck where some people were handing out flashlights and batteries. I parked a few yards away and came over to help him unload. I was standing in the bed of his truck, watching him talk to one of his church members, when somebody grabbed the edge of the truck bed and shouted.
"Hey! These guys got ICE!!!"
And in a moment, the truck was surrounded by two dozen men. A couple of them jumped into the bed of the truck and started heaving the tubs of ice over the side. Luis came running over and starting shouting,"No! This is for my church! This is for old people!"
The men ignored him. For reasons I have never understood, I tried to protect
the ice. Even those words "protect the ice" sound ridiculous now. I pushed one of the men in the truck and shouted, "Get out of the truck! This is for the hospital! You are stealing!"
"Fuck that shit. "
In another 30 seconds, we'd been swarmed. All but one of the ice tubs had been lifted over the sides and raced away with. Luis jumped behind the wheel and started to drive away. The last guy in the truck tugged at the last tub and I tugged back, until my back was against the cab, shouting for Luis to "Drive! Drive!"
Then the man picked up Luis' shovel and swung it viciously at my head, his face contorted in anger.
I didn't duck. I didn't flinch. I was too terrified to do anything.
And the shovel clipped the cab of the truck. The edge of the blade barely dinged off the roof of the cab and the shovel missed my face by less than an inch. The man threw down the shovel and jumped out with that last tub of ice, and about 10 feet away, as he struggled to carry that hundred pounds of ice, one of the tub handles cracked off and the ice fell on the ground.
Luis pulled over to where I'd parked. Both of my rear doors were open and the two tubs of ice in my backseat were gone. Luis went to call the police, which I knew would be futile, so I drove home. With my one, hidden, precious tub of ice still in my trunk.
When I finally got home, that tub of ice was half melted, of course. It had been in my trunk for almost 2 hours. But the neighbors all came to the end of our driveway and sifted out some cubes. Some just wanted the cold water. Some gave a few cubes to their dogs. The old alcoholic lady that lived behind us, she just held out a short glass of Jack Daniels and I winked at her and dropped in a few cubes.
At work the next day, alone, I nearly killed myself carrying 3 more tubs to my car, which I drove right up to the emergency entrance of Broward General. There were a couple of ER employees standing there smoking and I made my offer of the ice to them.
"Oh, that's nice. But we've got plenty of ice. Our machines are on the generator."