'Not Leaving the Island': Mandatory Evacuation Orders Mean Nothing to Some

by | September 8, 2017

By Joey Flechas and Lance Dixon

A golden sunrise ushered in a picturesque bright day Thursday, making conditions ideal for a dip in the ocean. But the sands of South Beach were eerily bare.

The streets were relatively free of congestion, save for lines snaking out of gas stations and markets. Plenty of street parking was available in neighborhoods packed with Art Deco apartments, suggesting some residents were heeding Miami-Dade's evacuation order. Others hunkered down behind metal shutters or wooden boards, ignoring the government's pleas to flee.

By evening, traffic heading north throughout Florida had picked up and knots of congestion were reported, especially in the northern part of the state.

But hours earlier, the whole scene across Miami-Dade's barrier island communities rendered the perennial cliche a startling reality. In places such as Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, Bal Harbour and North Bay Village, it was the calm before a ferocious Hurricane Irma roars into South Florida over the weekend.

The causeways connecting the mainland to the barrier islands were curiously clear most of the day, leading North Bay Village Manager Frank Rollason to question whether residents are taking the evacuation orders seriously.

"I wish I had a better sense that people are leaving," he said, after looking outside his window and seeing a woman walking a dog with small children Thursday afternoon. Traffic on the westbound lanes of the 79th Street Causeway looked ordinary.

He said people in his village, made up of two small islands in Biscayne Bay, keep telling him they're just going to "ride this one out."

In North Miami, City Manager Larry Spring said the city was encouraging residents in coastal neighborhoods to leave but noticed that the traffic off Northeast 125th Street -- and the Broad Causeway that leads to Bay Harbor Islands and Bal Harbour -- was not very heavy Thursday. He said the police department hasn't had to activate its evacuation transit plan.

"The police department has a plan for whenever there's an evacuation so we can move people from Biscayne Boulevard to [Interstate] 95 without stopping," Spring said.

"We're expecting as it gets into the evening that people will be getting home and deciding 'Hey, time to get the hell out of here.' "

Down in South Beach, some senior citizens were not taking any chances.

"I think this is going to be a catastrophe," said David Kelsey, a South Beach resident who waited for a county school bus to shuttle him and other seniors to shelters on the mainland. He walked to Rebecca Towers, two bayfront senior housing buildings south of Fifth Street. "I think there is going to be devastation."

Things were mostly calm on the "Island Paradise" of Key Biscayne aside from a busy Winn-Dixie and lines at some gas stations along Crandon Boulevard.

Mothers walked with strollers, children played in Village Green Park as cyclists made their way around.

But at the Square Shopping Center, business owners and residents were putting up shutters and plywood and making plans to leave after Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced an evacuation order Wednesday night.

Mary Tague's store Toy Town was still open Thursday morning and covered with plywood. She described herself as a "hurricaner" having survived Hurricane Andrew and other storms. Tague, who has lived in Key Biscayne for 36 years, said she lost her home during Andrew. The home she evacuated to was directly in the storm's path.

She's doing her best to remain calm while she plans to head to the Biltmore in Coral Gables with her dog Holly Golightly, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel.

"You can't really get stressed over things you can't control," Tague said. "This will be a good test of what Miami Beach and Key Biscayne can sustain."

Another store owner in the shopping center, Natalie Basick, was putting up shutters in front of her clothing store, Menocento, which she's had for 32 years. A Coconut Grove resident, she is also an Andrew survivor and said her store has been through storms since then.

But Irma has her worried.

"I don't normally put my shutters up this early but this time I'm doing it," Basick said as she supervised her sons, Nicholas and Sebastian Guarch. "This one is scary."

She was planning on flying out to Morocco Thursday night but said, "I don't expect to have much fun."

While Basick and Tague were gearing up to evacuate, the shopping center's property manager said she's staying put.

Michele Estevez, a former Key Biscayne council member, has lived in Key Biscayne for 38 years and said she made the necessary preparations to her home.

"No matter what, I'm not leaving the island," Estevez said.

By Thursday afternoon the county's evacuation order extended to all of zones A and B and parts of C, including much of coastal Miami-Dade County and parts of downtown Miami and Brickell.  [To find out your evacuation zone, go to this county website and type in your address; the site might be slow.]

The zones also cover large portions of South Dade and parts of Cutler Bay, Florida City and Homestead. The portions of Zone C to be evacuated include areas south of Coral Way, as well as the east and west sides of Biscayne Boulevard north of the city of Miami and parts of Aventura and Coral Gables.

Samantha Franco, a public relations professional, said she evacuated Brickell early Thursday to stay with her parents in Davie.

She lives in the Icon Brickell building and was planning on leaving even before the county's evacuation order officially extended into Brickell.

Since Wednesday, she said, she noticed more and more people leaving as she made trips to her car from the 50th floor.

"Going down every time to load up my car I saw another person with a piece of luggage," Franco said.

Before the mayor's order became official, Franco said that her building's management sent a notice that if winds exceeded 35 mph they would shut down the elevators and roll gates over the garage doors.

"Even if the government didn't say evacuate, the [building management] was kind of saying you should leave," Franco said. "No one wants to walk downstairs from the 50th floor."

The timing of the storm is especially rough for Franco as she just moved into the building about a month ago, after living in the Four Ambassadors building in Brickell.

"You'd think going up to the 50th floor would be glamorous but not so much now," Franco said.

Some locals have already left town, hitting the road or catching flights during the last few days. Those remaining residents secured their homes and businesses as much as possible.

On 10th Street and West Avenue in the Beach, the Daily Creative Food Co. was the only coffee shop still brewing Thursday morning, albeit with most of its windows shuttered.

Owner Adam Meltzer told the Herald he plans to remain open as long as he can. A self-described gambling man, he ordered $10,000 worth of food and beverage to sell once the store can reopen.

"Hopefully, we can be the shining star, to give people a sense of normalcy once this things hits."

Tourists were also advised to consider evacuation. Irma has cast a pall over a one-week vacation for Argentines Marta Di Franco and her adult niece Gabriela Panzera. They had planned a beach day for Thursday. Instead, nervous and unfamiliar with the power of hurricanes, they waited at a bus stop for two hours for a county vehicle to pick them up and take them to a shelter.

They got a refund from their hotel, and they were glad to be directed to a shelter. But this appears to be the first and last time they visit Miami.

"You won't see me in Miami again," Di Franco said.

(c)2017 Miami Herald