Ivan: From Key Lime to Gumbo

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Sept. 14, 2004 1:50a.m.

Television news is an unpredictable business, which is one of the reasons I love it so much.  Sometimes you get assigned one story and it becomes something completely different. Sometimes you go one place and the story takes you somewhere else.  And sometimes the story becomes bigger than you thought it would.
Hurricanes are the same way: unpredictable, changing course, speed and strength, growing or diminishing, turning towards you or somewhere else entirely. Sometimes you get slammed, or sometimes you miss the action completely. Sometimes you wind up chasing, trying to guess the storm’s next move, or sometimes you end up playing catch-up when it passes you by.
We were in Fort Lauderdale when Frances hit Stuart, Florida and spent the next three days commuting to Martin County to report on the damages and recovery. We went to Key West when Ivan threatened a direct hit, then left before he even arrived, because the path tracked to the west.  Now we’re in New Orleans, just in case the powerful and dangerous category five hits the Big Easy.
My producer Gary Gastelu and I were marveling today at our hurricane tri-fecta.  I mean, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Key West, and New Orleans are fun towns no matter WHAT the weather.  We’re not sure if we’ll stay here, or move on tomorrow or the next day or the day after that. Which is kind of cool.
I’ve been to Key West many times, for work and for vacation, and it’s been a scene every time.  Usually crowded — plenty of characters — but also plenty of tourists. This time was different, eerie, and strange. The place was nearly deserted, with many of the most popular hotels, stores, bars, and restaurants closed and boarded up.  Even "Sloppy Joes" was shuttered.  Duval Street was quiet and empty, save for the occasional locals in cars or on mopeds cruising by, many with cameras to record us recording them. We had fun meeting and talking to the folks who decided to ride out the storm, including Mayor Jimmy Weekley, local business owner Bill Spottswood (a sixth-generation resident of the Conch Republic), Dennis Cooper, who publishes a local paper, and Evalena Worthington, who runs a bar called "Schooner Wharf" with her husband. But it was just odd being among the only ones there, especially when the weather never really got that bad.
Drinking appeared to be an important activity for the random people we saw on the street waiting for Ivan, and there was an impressive array of colorful characters, including a guy dressed in a blue polka dot “Dorothy” dress with matching pigtail wig on a scooter, another guy weaving hats out of palm fronds who claimed his sales of the homemade lids topped $100,000 a year, and a carload of cross-dressers in skirts and high heels trying to drum up business for their bar by pretending to nail sheets of plywood to a building behind me during one of my live shots.
My biggest regret is I left without enjoying a single sunset, normally a must-see event at Mallory Square every night on the Island.
On the way up US1 from the Keys to Miami International Airport we passed a black souped-up Volkswagen with tinted windows and a license plate that read “ITAPASS.” Gary figured it out before I did, and we shared a good laugh.