The wind, when it finally kicks in late in the afternoon, is relentless, maybe a steady 50 miles an hour, with intermittent, pelting raindrops.
All day the air has been blowing in hot and damp, thickened with salt from the ocean. The wind gets no cooler as it gathers strength, and you can tell that Hurricane Floyd is from some distant equatorial zone, some exotic place, that this sort of event is just what the scientists say it is, a heat-transfer mechanism on a hemispheric scale. At the Cocoa Beach Pier the breakers are racked up six and seven deep, crashing into foam, leaving a lather so thick it's as if the coast is getting a shave.
"That's a goner," says Larry Kershaw, a retired military man, waving toward the old pier. "The last time you can see it."
The entire eastern coast of Florida is empty and desolate. Highway A1A is a main drag with no cars. The wind howls across barrier islands as sparsely inhabited as they were a thousand years ago. Something like 3 million people left their homes, not just in government theory (it's a "mandatory" evacuation, with the punishment never explained) but in actual fact.
This is a persuasive storm. From edge to edge, Floyd is bigger than Florida. People saw that thing on the map, that monster, and hit the road.
The Bee Line Highway became backed up from the toll booth near the Orlando airport all the way to the Space Coast, a 30-mile crawl across alligator-infested swamps with nary a gas station in sight. Even if there'd been one, it would have been closed. This part of the world is shut down and boarded up. Even Ron Jon's Surf Shop, in Cocoa Beach, allegedly always open, locked the doors.
In tropical storm country there has always been much foolish bravery, countless weathered souls who insist they will take face-on the wrath of nature. The false alarms, for decades, outnumbered the genuinely destructive storms. But this evacuation comes within recent memory of Andrew, the 1992 storm that chewed up $25 billion worth of housing in Dade County and killed dozens of people. This storm has the same intensity of Andrew but is so much bigger it looks out of proportion, as though the maps have an error of scale. For much of today, it looked to be coming directly to this cape, or at least within shouting distance, so close the hurricane experts said it would count as a landfall.
Standing on the beach, Todd Shagnon says he can't afford to leave. He needs to work, and when you leave you can get trapped on the mainland. He's a musician and carpenter with the bassline of a Beatles song tattooed in musical notation around his right bicep.
"The last time I evacuated for a hurricane, it turned out to be a big bummer, and it took a day and a half to get back on the island," he says.
Some guys are holed up in the Cocoa Beach Hilton, in Coco's Lounge, waiting out the storm. There are plenty of beers on ice. The air hockey and pinball are free.
The news media report every slight movement of the storm, the precise coordinates. The governor squabbles with reporters over a couple of vetoes of hurricane-related legislation. The worst-case scenarios are flying. The rumored 20-foot storm surge becomes 25. It is hard to reduce the mounting sense of anxiety as the palm trees become increasingly horizontal.
Just down A1A, Valentine Jarova has finished boarding up his house, which has the Atlantic as a backyard. The storm surge, if as huge as predicted, could obliterate the home, though he does not seem worried. "We are Christians, we shouldn't worry," he says. Jarova had a contractor over just yesterday, tearing up the second floor as part of a renovation. Maybe, Jarova said, Floyd will do the work of the contractor now.
The storm turns and for a while it looks as if the Space Coast will be spared. But later reports backtrack. Although the worst of the storm will strike farther north, winds will still reach 105 mph at Cape Canaveral, far above the hurricane threshold.
Near Jetty Park, where space buffs in recreational vehicles have traditionally watched the rocket launches, a man is jogging. Steve Sponsler is a Boeing engineer. He'll spend the afternoon monitoring the storm on the Internet and TV. Maybe he'll take off around dusk. He's trained in meteorology.
"This is a warm course system," he explains, panting on the side of the road. "It feeds off warm, moist air feeding into it from all directions. The center of the storm is the warmest part."
The air is almost unbreathable, it's so hot and wet.
"Right now we have compressed heating," the jogger/meteorologist says. And he runs onward.
On a bridge nearby, a lone man is walking with his thumb out. A hitchhiker, in Army fatigues. He's Robert Latiolais, a Cajun with a fully spiced accent. He works on his father's scallop boat. Why is he hitchhiking? Because his truck broke down, and had to be towed away, and he needs a ride home, where he lives with his parents, but his parents have left and he didn't go with them because he always gets in fights with someone else in the car, and so his plan--this is what he says--is to ride out the storm in a hole beneath his backyard Jacuzzi.
"I believe in a God bigger than these small problems. Plus, I've got a bunker," he says.
But in fact there is no bunker beneath the backyard hot tub. The bunker is a part of his plan that has yet to be executed. He will dig it this afternoon, he says. He is a strong man, he says, and he can dig quickly.
CAPTION: A surfer tackled the breakers yesterday at Cocoa Beach, where a few people decided not to evacuate.