Cover Story

A giant Weed Eater

Like the famous lawn-and-garden tool, Floyd grazed the entire Florida coast-taxing local resources as millions fled and needed food and shelter for a frightening night

Issue: "Fleeing Hurricane Floyd," Sept. 25, 1999

in Florida - For Mary Jane McCarthy, Monday started out just like any other day. She reported early to work at Imperial Estates Elementary School in Titusville, Fla., ready for another day of putting teachers and students through their paces. Just four months shy of retirement, the long-time principal thought she had seen it all. Then came the call from her superintendent: She was being temporarily suspended from her duties as principal. With Hurricane Floyd bearing down on the Florida coast, Imperial Estates would be a temporary shelter. The hundreds of evacuees flocking to her school wouldn't need a principal. They'd need an organizer, a captain, a friend. Ms. McCarthy slipped into her new role with surprising ease. She taped up signs. Pushed around desks. Rounded up additional trash cans. Recruiting teachers to help out was a little tougher. Many wanted to evacuate the coast entirely, taking their families with them. Eventually, she found a few willing to live in their workplace for several nights. She had her team. And just in time. Gov. Jeb Bush gave the evacuation order on Monday, ordering residents of barrier islands and mobile-home communities to seek more appropriate shelter. By 4 p.m., Ms. McCarthy had her first residents. She was officially in the disaster-relief business. Up and down the Florida coast, the scene repeated with only minor variations. Schools, churches, and fairgrounds opened their doors to a flood of evacuees. Emergency preparedness officials were surprised as shelter after shelter filled to capacity, forcing some to wander forlornly in search of a place to sleep. The officials could be forgiven for underestimating the demand for shelters. Many Floridians, after all, are somewhat jaded when it comes to hurricanes. They're used to battening down the hatches and riding out the storms. Many see it as the price they pay for living in paradise. Familiarity may breed contempt, but Hurricane Floyd was anything but familiar. Three times the size of the deadly 1992 storm Hurricane Andrew and packing winds of more than 150 mph, it was, in the words of Gov. Bush, downright "scary." Forecasters predicted the storm would sweep up Florida's Atlantic coast like a giant Weed Eater, mowing down some of America's most valuable real estate and endangering hundreds of thousands of lives. Few were willing to take their chances with the monster storm. By Tuesday afternoon, Florida's major roadways resembled endless parking lots. On one stretch of I-95 North near Melbourne, it took nearly 45 minutes to cover a mile and a half. Westbound traffic was often even worse. On some roads leading to Orlando and the Gulf Coast, drivers turned off their cars and milled about on foot, turning the evacuation into a somber and frustrating block party. Back in Titusville, the mood was equally grim. Nonstop news coverage followed Floyd's rampage across the Bahamas. Every two hours or so the National Hurricane Center issued an update on the storm's position-and its expected landfall. By early afternoon, the so-called Space Coast looked like toast. Cape Canaveral, directly across the Intracoastal Waterway from Titusville, was slated for a direct hit. NASA hurried the space shuttles into a special hangar capable of withstanding 120 mph winds, then abandoned the Cape entirely-leaving three multimillion-dollar rockets tethered to their launchpads. Titusville residents had no intention of being similarly stranded. Many joined the inland exodus, while 6,000 others streamed into local shelters. By 5 p.m. Tuesday, Imperial Estates was nearing its capacity of 300 evacuees, and still no Red Cross volunteers had arrived on the scene. Ms. McCarthy and her little band of teachers did their best to herd the human stampede into proper quarters: families with young children into the kindergarten rooms, where toys were brought out to entertain the kids; seniors into a room just off the cafeteria, where they played endless card games; singles into their own wing, the men far removed from the women. Then the waiting began. Many watched TV or listened to radios for minute-by-minute reports of the storm's progress. Others congregated outside, keeping a wary eye on the dirty-colored clouds that skirted east to west across the backdrop of solid gray. Still others took the ignorance-is-bliss approach, curling up on air mattresses and pulling covers over their heads as early as 7 p.m. An hour later, with winds reaching sustained speeds of 50 mph, Titusville was a virtual ghost town. Officials announced that emergency vehicles would no longer respond to calls for help. Anyone not in a shelter was on his own. As darkness fell, Titusville was wrapped in an eerie quiet. Entire square blocks were boarded up, with cars parked in front of windows as additional reinforcement. Dried palm fronds blew down empty streets until they came to rest against some barrier or another, their dried leaves curving inward like the rib cage of a long-dead animal. A few were still unprepared. Tourists in the area, new to the hurricane drill, were caught particularly unprepared. Hours before the winds gained hurricane force, every gas station in town was closed, making it impossible for dawdlers to change their mind and head inland. Even those who were prepared to ride out the storm sometimes weren't prepared for the minor hardships of a hurricane: Three elderly tourists in a mustard-yellow Buick drove hopelessly from one fast-food parking lot to another, confronted each time with locked doors and dimmed lights. It had never occurred to them that their hotel restaurant would be closed, they explained. Now they might have to live out of vending machines for up to 24 hours. About midnight, the howling began. With the eye of the storm due east of Titusville, winds quickly mounted to hurricane speed along the coast. For hours on end, buildings creaked and groaned as the wind barreled past with the sound of a locomotive. Power quickly failed in some 40,000 homes, leaving residents with nothing to do but hope that the creaking could outlast the howling. By sunrise, however, the worst of it was over. Rain continued to lash the coast as winds gusted to 50 mph throughout the morning, but the daylight revealed how fortunate central Florida had been. Instead of slamming into Cape Canaveral, as had been forecast, the eye of the hurricane turned northward and stayed about 100 miles off the coast. At Imperial Estates, evacuees quickly evacuated, packing their earthly belongings into black garbage bags and heading home. Teachers began trickling in to survey the (human) damage to their classrooms. "Bless their hearts, I'll have to give them tranquilizers," worried Ms. McCarthy as she surveyed the mess. Still, she seemed proud of the job her little band of volunteers had done. "We've tried to be gracious hostesses, if nothing else," she explained. And with that, she was ready to resume her role as principal. "Four more months to retirement," she said wistfully. "I just want everything to be normal until January."

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