MIAMI, SEPT. 14 -- Florida, where get-rich schemes have been hyped since hucksters sold the state's first subdivided swamp at the turn of the century, is crazed by Lotto fever.
The state-run lottery jackpot is at $100 million and growing so fast that it threatens to topple the U.S. record of $115 million, shared by 14 winners in the Pennsylvania lottery last year.
So frenzied is the rush to get in on the action before Saturday night's drawing that Lotto tickets are selling at a rate of 433 each second.
"It's crazy," offered Alvaro de Cardenas, an accountant with the lottery.
Crazy does not begin to describe the stampede to buy Lotto tickets, even in Florida, where many things seem zanier and wilder than anywhere else.
Gamblers jetted from Latin America to buy tickets. Hundreds of Bahamians are flying in to buy thousands of tickets for resale in the Caribbean. On Wall Street in New York, the $1 Florida Lotto tickets were going for $3 and $5.
Meanwhile, the eyes of regular lottery players are spinning like lemons on Las Vegas slot machines. Lotto players say they are doubling, tripling and quadrupling the amount they usually play because the payoff is worth the risk.
The jackpot ballooned to $75 million last Sunday, when no one had the winning six-digit combination for four consecutive weeks. Florida's previous record Lotto jackpot was $58 million, split among five people last spring.
"The Florida Lottery is heading into uncharted territory," Florida Lottery chief Rebecca Paul warned cheerfully.
By Tuesday, the jackpot was $90 million and, by Wednesday, lottery officials were busy redesigning billboards to accommodate a nine-digit jackpot on the display.
Here, jackpot statistics are lovingly cited for dreamers and schemers betting on that one big chance. By one calculation, it would take 190 years to run through $100 million. Another suggested that, after taxes, the winner will make 10 cents a second.
That assumes only one winner, chances of which are slim. However, with about 44 million tickets sold, the chance that a winner will emerge this week are pretty good, officials said.
The odds of winning, of course, are not -- about 1 in 14 million. The chance of being killed by lightning in Florida is greater -- 1 in 2 million.
The long odds seem to be of no consequence in the statewide Gold Rush. A Tampa man and his son plunked down $10,000 in $100 bills for 10,000 tickets. They had to wait seven hours for the machine to print them. Another man spent the same amount on tickets at a Tallahassee gas station.
An investor from California telephoned Tallahassee, saying he had raised $13.9 million to buy a ticket for each of the 13.9 million possible number combinations, a novel approach to even the odds. But he was advised that a single lottery machine, working normal hours of 6 a.m. until midnight, would take 63 weeks to print 13.9 million tickets.
Finally, even the Florida Lottery, which has hustled Lotto tickets shamelessly for four years, sought to slow the frenzy by airing an anti-lottery advertisement. "Remember, it takes just one ticket to win millions in Lotto," a voice said soothingly.
Gov. Bob Martinez (R), who opposed the lottery when it was put on the statewide ballot four years ago, pleaded with bettors not to "overextend themselves at the expense of their families."
Jack Kapchan, a psychologist at the University of Miami, said a patient once spent his entire paycheck on losing Lotto tickets. "The lottery represents to the poor the only chance to change the quality of their life," Kapchan said. "There is a great danger in this. There's not much of a chance they'll be able to fulfill their fantasies."
Sometimes, even the winners lose.
On Thursday, as the Lotto buying spree reached its apex, Miami police fished the body of a drowned man, 35, from the Miami River. He had $2,500 in cash in his wallet and a half-full bottle of sherry tucked into the front of his pants.
He had won $10,000 in the lottery the previous week and, police said, had been celebrating ever since.